The once-heated debate about the NBA's best player has been cooling down over the past year-and-a-half.
The debate essentially ended this past June, when LeBron James completed the most dominant season for an individual since Michael Jordan by winning his first NBA title. LeBron's primary adversary for years was Kobe Bryant, but the Lakers' star saw his team fail to get past the second round of the playoffs for the second straight season.
Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant unseated Kobe when the Thunder convincingly knocked the Lakers out of the playoffs, and LeBron's dominance of Durant during the finals left little question as to the current hierarchy of the NBA's top players.
However, those who thought Kobe Bryant would continue to plummet down the ranks in 2012-13 have been proven utterly wrong.
Through 26 games, the 34-year-old Bryant has led the league with a scoring average of 29.5 points per game. He's scoring with greater efficiency than any other top-10 scorer besides James, Durant and somewhat inexplicably, O.J. Mayo.
Bryant's current scoring average is the third-highest of his career. More importantly, he has reversed the trends that led many to declare his decline. His shooting percentage had been getting lower and lower in each of the previous four seasons, his three-point percentage in the previous five.
This year, Kobe has the best field-goal percentage of his career, along with his second-best percentage from deep.
The best thing to do with this data would be to sit back, relax and enjoy watching one of the greatest of all time play out the remainder of his career. Numbers can only tell us so much, especially in the cases of players like Bryant, Jordan, Tim Duncan and, in a few years, LeBron James.
While the loss of physical ability leads to most careers either ending or dramatically declining in a player's early-to-mid 30s, the truly great ones tend to stay great. This isn't because they are superhuman; it's because what made these players truly great in the first place was not physical; it was mental.
Once you reach the NBA level, there is only so much difference in physical ability from player to player. Michael Jordan was not the greatest ever because he was the fastest, the strongest, the highest leaper, the purest shooter. He was the greatest because he combined top-notch physical skill with top-notch competitiveness, commitment, perseverance and confidence.
The same is true for Kobe Bryant. There's nothing on the court that Kobe can do and Jason Richardson or Tracy McGrady cannot. All three are among the most physically gifted wing players of the 2000s, but only one has a championship, and he has five.
Only one is averaging over 20 ppg for his career, and he's averaging 25.5. Only one has remained a dynamic player into his 30s, and he's still one of the best in the NBA.
This is because of Kobe Bryant's drive. Every NBA player wants to win and wants to be great, but very few have ever put in the time and energy that Kobe has. Every time Kobe makes a bad play on offense, he digs in twice as hard on defense. Every time he makes a good play, he immediately forgets it and tries to make a better play the next time.
For every "step" that Bryant loses as he gets older, he's gaining one more mental step. Every jump shot he takes, he's learning a little more about the guy guarding him, so that even if his knees are a little weaker next time around, his timing will be a little better.
Don't get me wrong: Everybody declines. Michael Jordan wouldn't be able to make an NBA team any more. Physical ability isn't everything, but once it really starts to go, so goes one's game.
While Bryant continues to prove why he's one of the greatest ever, it will not last forever. And while his numbers this season could be mistaken for those of a 26-year-old Bryant, it doesn't mean that 36-year-old Kobe will play like 28-year-old Kobe.
Bryant is the fiercest competitor the game of basketball has seen since Michael Jordan. He may even be fiercer.
Bryant hasn't quite had the same kind of success as Jordan—seven straight scoring titles, six rings in eight years, being the unequivocal best player on those championship teams—and as a result, has more to prove and more to work for. Like so many who grew up in the '90s, Kobe idolizes Jordan and his career, and for that reason will work endlessly for a sixth ring.
Until Kobe wins No. 6, he will continue to be the most competitive man in the NBA. With his body in great shape for his age, this competitive drive will allow him to remain a top-five to top-10 player in the league for at least two more seasons.
If Kobe wins No. 6 this year or next, it's very possible that he will pull an MJ and retire on top, going down in history as one of the greatest players, winners and leaders of all time. Bryant will be remembered this way even if he doesn't win a sixth ring, but he will be far more hesitant to hang it up.
A 37-, 38-year-old Kobe will no longer be an unstoppable force, but the shooting guard's game will evolve in a way that will still make him incredibly effective. Maybe he'll play off the ball more. Maybe he'll facilitate more. Maybe he'll defend harder. Maybe he'll come off the bench, allowing him to greatly impact the game for 25-28 minutes a night.
A late-30s Kobe Bryant will not win any scoring titles, but he'll be just about the farthest thing from a shell of his former self or a washed-up old man.
The NBA is no longer Kobe Bryant's league. It belongs to LeBron James. It's no longer about if Kobe is the best or the second-best, it's about if he's the best shooting guard (Dwyane Wade); if he's the best in Los Angeles (Chris Paul).
At the same time, the notion that Bryant is rolling down the back slope of his mountainous career is absolutely false—he may have reached the peak, but he's marching down slowly, under control, and will stop to enjoy the view as pleases.
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