While we celebrate the greatness of LeBron James in 2015 NBA Finals, let's not forget how good Kobe Bryant has been in his career. Here I project what to expect from Kobe & the Lakers next season.
Kobe-Jordan Comparison More Fair
Everyone is comparing LeBron to Michael Jordan because James is in his fifth straight NBA Finals and sixth overall. Jordan made six total Finals in his career, winning all of them. LeBron is trying for a third ring, although I don't think he gets it this year. His Cavaliers no doubt will be favorites again in 2015-16 as long as Kyrie Irving comes back healthy -- not sure it even depends on whether Kevin Love comes back (more on him in a minute).
I don't think James and Jordan are comparable as actual players -- maybe one day as the greatest of all time. Jordan was a 6-foot-6, wiry 220-pound shooting guard. MJ probably could have guarded three positions: both guard spots and small forward. James is nearly 6-foot-9 and about 260 pounds. He's a freight train and a physical marvel on a basketball court; he could probably play tight end in the NFL. James can and has guarded every position on the floor. Jordan was an incredible defender but if James got MJ in the paint ... well, from a physical standpoint it's not close.
Kobe has been the closest thing to Jordan since MJ retired. Bryant plays the same position, is essentially the same size and really has modeled his whole career after Jordan. He plays like him, has a never-quit attitude like him (which is why some teammates hate him because he never stops pushing everyone for greatness) and even sounds like Jordan in interviews.
Kobe's Swan-Song Season
The 2014-15 season was Bryant's 19th, although he lasted only 35 games a year after playing only six. Clearly injuries are starting to take a toll on the 36-year-old, who probably has played more NBA minutes than almost anyone in history when you consider also consider preseason, playoffs, etc. Remember, Kobe came out of high school and Jordan played three years at North Carolina.
Bryant's contract runs out after next season and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has said Kobe has told him that the 2015-16 season will be his last. And it probably should be. Bryant shot a career-worst 37.3 percent from the field last season and his 22.3 points per game average was his worst in a season (not counting the six games in 2013-14) since 1998-99. The Lakers have been one of the NBA's worst teams each of the past two seasons and are probably at least a couple of years from getting back into contention even with the No. 2 overall pick in this month's draft. You hear that many free agents don't want to play with Kobe. Love might have as he's a West Coast boy and played at UCLA, but he just came out and said he would be a Cavalier next season. Thus I expect another lottery team for the Lakers, who then would have monster cap room in the huge free-agent summer of 2017 with Kobe's contract off the books. Kobe has won five rings and it's clear he's going to fall one shy of MJ's total.
For comparison, Jordan played 15 seasons. His last was in 2002-03 with the Wizards when Jordan played every game and averaged 20.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists in 37.0 minutes per night. Still pretty darn good. I think Kobe can average more points because he's going to shoot all night. The Lakers don't really have anyone else to score. Yeah, Jordan Clarkson had a good rookie season but otherwise the roster is full of questions as currently constructed. We still don't know how good 2014 first-round pick Julius Randle is after he broke his leg in the '14 season opener. And then you will have growing pains for this year's first-round pick, probably either Jahlil Okafor or Karl-Anthony Towns. Bryant's 20.4 field-goal attempts per game this past season would have ranked No. 2 in the NBA behind Russell Westbrook.
So Kobe will get his points. But his lift is gone and he will struggle to get lift or to the time. He will be a glorified jump shooter. Bryant also won't play close to all 82 games as the Lakers will give him more than a few off (all on road if possible). Plus at this point it's hard to imagine he doesn't suffer at least one injury that knocks him out for a while.
Last season, Kobe passed MJ on the all-time scoring list. Bryant has 32,482 and is No. 3. He's not going to catch No. 2 Karl Malone (36,928). Still, retiring as the Top-3 scorer, probably a Top-10 player of all-time, a five-time champion, two-time scoring champion and one-time league MVP is quite a career.
NBA Free Picks: Kobe averages around 21.0 points, but the Lakers don't win more than 30 games. Bryant does retire.