Kobe Bryant is facing a long road back, considering the destination that probably means the most to him: A sixth NBA championship ring.
Not that he necessarily needs this in chasing it, but we’ve got a teensy bit of extra motivation for him.
First, of course, Bryant has to get his game back, if not to its all-galaxy heights then at least to something reminiscent of who he was and what it was prior to tearing his left Achilles tendon in April. Then he has to fit and shape himself and his teammates on this year’s edition of the Lakers (or the next two) into the ranks of legit contenders.
And then they have to actually play and win the games, 16 victories in at most 28 games, when the stakes are highest, the pressure is most intense, and fatigue – and in Bryant’s case, Father Time – are laughing hardest.
So just in case Bryant needs a little extra oomph in his quest, here it is: He would be doing something Michael Jordan never did.
As noted on Twitter by “GangstaMoogle” (a.k.a., Tommy), Dec. 18, 2013 is a special day for Bryant because, as of today, he is precisely the same age as Jordan was when His Airness clinched that 1998 NBA Finals with The Shot in Game 6 against the Utah Jazz:
That means, should Bryant win a ring from this point forward, he will accomplish something Jordan didn’t. Didn’t even come close to doing, in fact, given the Washington Wizards’ 74-90 record (no playoffs) from 2001-03 in the former Bulls star’s two late-career seasons with them.
Among Hall of Fame players, no wing player or big-time ballhandler considered the leader of the team — note that we’re not counting big men — ever has won a championship at the age Bryant will be by his next playoffs. Or even tomorrow, according to basketball-reference.com.
Boston’s Sam Jones was 50 days shy of his 36th birthday when the Celtics won again in 1969, but by that point, the five-time All-Star ranked third on his team in scoring (16.3 pgg) and sixth in minutes (26.0).
Gary Payton was 37 when he got his ring with the Miami Heat in 2006 but he was well past his “Glove” prime at both ends, with a PER (10.7) that ranked ninth, behind both Dorell Wright (13.2) and Wayne Simien (11.5).
If you broaden it to include players likely to be enshrined, the Heat’s Ray Allen was at a point similar to Jones, averaging 25.8 minutes as his team’s fourth option. Jason Kidd led the 2010 Dallas champs in assists (8.2) and averaged 33.8 minutes, but by PER (14.4) he ranked no higher than eighth among the Mavericks and 14th in usage (14.3).
Jordan got his sixth ring same as his first five, as his team’s best player and leading scorer. That’s something Bryant might have to, and probably would like to, do for one more.
The odds against him increase with each passing day. And knowing what we know of Bryant, he would have it no other way.