- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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In NBA basketball circles, a player's prime is considered to be around age 28, after he's played seven or eight years in the league. It's a time when a player's physical gifts have yet to dip significantly while his mental understanding for the game is fully developed from those years of experience.
Kobe Bryant has been cheating the traditional definition of "prime" for years now.
Last season, the 33-year-old Bryant finished fourth in league MVP voting while playing on what he termed a "bone on bone" right knee that kept him from practicing on a consistent basis.
With reduced playing time, his 2009-10 season averages dropped from 27.0 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists to 25.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.7 assists in '10-11, but his points-per-40 minutes rate (29.9) was the best in the NBA.
Bryant traveled to Germany this offseason to undergo an innovative procedure meant to breathe new life into his knee joint through blood manipulation, and whispers of a Bryant bounce-back started to spread during the lockout. Derek Fisher said his teammate's knee was "the best it's been in a long time." Other players marveled at how fresh Bryant seemed while playing at private runs at Loyola Marymount University.
Still, heading into his 16th NBA season, Bryant is entering uncharted waters in what promises to be a grueling 66-game compressed schedule.
History says great guards find it difficult to remain healthy and play at an elite level late in their careers.
Michael Jordan won titles Nos. 5 and 6 with the Chicago Bulls when he was 33 and 34 years old, but those were only seasons Nos. 12 and 13 of his career, and he had given his body a break from basketball (missing the entire 1993-94 season and half of the 1994-95 season) during his minor league baseball experiment in Birmingham, Ala.
Clyde Drexler, a 6-foot-7, 210-pound scoring machine whose body is similar to Bryant's, was in his 14th year in the league as a 33-year-old shooting guard with the Houston Rockets in 1995-96. His numbers (19.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.0 steals) were strong, but he missed 30 games because of injury.
Jerry West's last best season came when he was 33, in his 12th year in the league. He put up 25.8 points and 9.7 assists per game and the Lakers went 69-13 en route to the title in 1972. But just two seasons later, West retired after being limited to 31 games because of a strained groin.
George Gervin called it quits after a 14th season that began when he was 33 years old. He averaged 16.2 points for Chicago, down almost nine points from his 25.1 ppg career average.
New York Knicks legend Earl Monroe had his last impact season in 1977-78 at age 33, his 11th year in the league. He averaged 17.8 points in 31.2 minutes per game that season. Those numbers would dip to 12.3 points in 21.8 minutes the following season and 7.4 points in 12.4 minutes in 1979-80 before he retired.
The anecdotal evidence suggests that Bryant -- who has logged 48,326 career minutes, more than any of these predecessors except Jordan, who registered 48,484 minutes but played until he was 40 -- faces a serious challenge if he hopes to be a top-five NBA player in the coming season. While the shortened 66-game season may save him some wear and tear, the back-to-back-to-backs he'll have to play (a minimum of one and a maximum of three for each team) won't do him any favors.
As Charles Barkley likes to say, "Father Time is undefeated."
Bryant claims individual numbers don't matter to him anymore and says the only statistic he cares about is his adding to his championship ring collection. But while he's developed a trust with teammates Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom over the years, Bryant clearly still puts himself at the top of the pecking order, reminding everyone again last season, "I eat first."
It's hard to say how this thing will play out -- Bryant relishes opportunities to prove people wrong as much or more than any player in the league. But bank on this: More than any other storyline, the battle between Kobe Bryant and Father Time, the fight to extend his prime, will determine the fate of the 2011-12 Lakers.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
10hAdam Lewis, Special to ESPN.com