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May 10, 2011
Advancing Age
The Lakers' New Foe

by Kevin Pelton

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After getting swept by the Dallas Mavericks, the Los Angeles Lakers now encounter what may be a more challenging foe: age. That starts with star Kobe Bryant, who will turn 33 in August and is now a 15-year veteran. How much longer can Bryant continue to play at his current All-NBA level? The answer to that question looms large for the Lakers' future.

Basketball Prospectus' SCHOENE projection system is designed to provide a general guide to questions like this. SCHOENE begins by finding comparable players of the same age based on weighted performance during the previous three seasons, then looks at how these peers developed in the years to come. Naturally, in Bryant's case, most similar players were beginning to decline. Of the 50 players whose stats were closest to Bryant's in 13 categories, including height and weight, 71 percent saw their overall per-minute performance decline the next season.

There are two bits of encouraging news for Lakers fans. The first is the player most similar to Bryant. As you might guess, that's Michael Jordan (see below for Bryant's five best comps). When he turned 33, Jordan was in the midst of winning the fourth of his five MVP trophies while leading the Chicago Bulls to a record 72 wins and a championship. Because Bryant entered the NBA out of high school and because of Jordan's year-plus baseball sabbatical, Jordan had less mileage at the same age--a lot less. In fact, Jordan had played barely 26,500 career minutes at the same age. Bryant has played more than 40,000. And yet, Bryant and Jordan appear similar, seemingly defining just how effective a star shooting guard can be, even as the athleticism wanes.

Player               Season     Sim
-----------------------------------
Michael Jordan        94-95    96.1
Vince Carter          08-09    95.8
Clyde Drexler         94-95    95.7
Dominique Wilkins     91-92    95.2
Gary Payton           00-01    94.9

Beyond that, Bryant's development probably cannot be defined by the average player with comparable stats. Since Bryant's work ethic and dedication to fitness are off the charts, he figures to hold his value longer than superficially similar players like Vince Carter. An extended summer due to a lockout could actually play to Bryant's advantage, given his legendary offseason workout regimen.

But there are some ominous signs, and major questions to be answered.

Start with Kobe's role. An interesting aspect of his projection relates to the part he plays in the Lakers' offense. The most significant area of decline for similar players at the same age was in terms of usage rate, which dropped by 4.6 percent of its previous total. Even Hall of Famers like Clyde Drexler began shifting to secondary roles in their early 30s. (Drexler was nearly 33 when he was traded to the Houston Rockets and teamed up with Hakeem Olajuwon to win a championship.) Yet Bryant is coming off a season in which he led the NBA with his highest usage rate (35.1 percent of the Lakers' plays) since 2005-06, when Smush Parker was the team's third-leading scorer.

While it doesn't show up in the numbers, Bryant is also in decline at the defensive end of the floor. As go-to players get older, they tend to have to conserve their energy on defense. That made it all the more surprising that Bryant was voted by coaches to the All-Defensive First Team for the ninth consecutive season.

The larger problem for the Lakers is that Bryant is not the team's only aging veteran. Weighted for playing time, the Lakers' effective age of 30.9 years on average was second in the league, trailing only the Mavericks (31.8). Just two of Los Angeles' rotation players (reserve guard Shannon Brown and center Andrew Bynum) are still in their 20s. Should the team stand pat, Bynum represents the greatest opportunity for improvement from within after his dominant post-All-Star performance. At Bynum's age, similar centers (a group that prominently includes Dwight Howard, as well as Yao Ming and Tim Duncan) increased their usage by 3.2 percent.

Besides Bynum, the Lakers' other frontcourt players should be able to hold their value for now. On average, Pau Gasol's best comparables actually improved at the same age. Similar players also suggest that Lamar Odom should maintain most of his value after being rewarded with the Sixth Man Award for one of the best seasons of his career.

Where SCHOENE forecasts big trouble is for Bryant's fellow perimeter players. Players similar to Ron Artest saw their per-minute production drop off by 6.3 percent the following season, and they tended to drift beyond the arc--not an encouraging sign after two consecutive seasons of shooting between 35 and 36 percent from 3-point range. Derek Fisher's best match was Derek Harper, who played one last year as a part-time starter for the Lakers--splitting time with a young Fisher--before retiring.

All of these projections are subject to change should the Lakers make dramatic changes during the offseason. But for now, the best guess is we've already seen the best of both Bryant and the Lakers. That certainly doesn't rule out the possibility of another title run, but it will make it that much more difficult.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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