Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 1 October 2020

Kobe Bryant fades out of the NBA, and with him an era inspired by Michael Jordan

Jonathan Raymond writes that, as Kobe Bryant announces his retirement from basketball, he helps complete a transition into a new era for the game.
Kobe Bryant will finish his career as the NBA's third all-time leading scorer. Gabriel Bouys / AFP
Kobe Bryant will finish his career as the NBA's third all-time leading scorer. Gabriel Bouys / AFP

It was one of the signature moves of an era, one of the most fun to replicate in a driveway or a gym.

Kobe Bryant backs a defender toward the post from the mid-range. He dribbles once, twice, maybe three times, leaning in with his shooting shoulder while controlling the ball with his opposite hand. Then a last nudge, a turnaround and, finally, a near-unguardable fall-away release.

Bryant devastated so many opponents with this shot, his patented turnaround fadeaway. It was smooth and cold, almost casual in its unplayability.

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It was also, we now know, a remarkably inefficient shot. Not Bryant’s, specifically, but certainly at least the idea of it. As basketball analytics have matured, one thing has become glaringly clear – right around the hoop and beyond the three-point line is where efficient basketball is played. In that in-between expanse, beyond the comfort of the key and short of the greater riches promised by the three-point line, is where basketball’s past is fighting a losing battle. Where Bryant, in the twilight of his career, has unyieldingly been waging that lonely fight.

Bryant will retire at the end of this season. It is poetic, in its way, that he fades from the game as it evolves beyond that fadeaway dagger of his.

Bryant, now 37, became for a time the game’s greatest star by moulding that mid-range space into his own. It used to be pretty straightforward in that way. If you could move in that space and find openings and hit shots that no one could do a thing about, you scored the most points and you were self-evidently better than everybody else. He scored over 25 points per game for his career doing things this way, including a stretch from 2005-07 in which he led the league in scoring in back-to-back seasons. He was responsible for a jaw-dropping 35.4 points per game in 05/06, the eighth most in history.

It was also the time he left opponents most helpless in that 10-22 feet (3.05-6.71 metres) range. Bryant attempted 33.1 and 32.1 per cent of his shots from the far end of that range, respectively, in 05/06 and 06/07, the highest marks of his career. To this point in his 20 NBA seasons, he has taken almost half (45.3 per cent) his shots from 10-22 feet.

Compare that with Stephen Curry (33.1 per cent), or James Harden (18.3) or even LeBron James (33.2), who earned his chops a decade ago at the time when Bryant was the consensus best player in the world.

It is a throwback kind of figure, to a time some 20 years ago when anybody growing up playing basketball wanted to be like Mike. And if anyone could be said to have successfully actually been like Michael Jordan, it is Bryant.

He won five titles and an MVP award and made a gaggle of all-star teams. He racked up the third-most points in history, surpassing even MJ himself.

He achieved that mid-range lethality. The ability to attack the basket at will. The fearsomeness. The ruthlessness. In the most complimentary way possible, it can be said Bryant did probably the best Michael Jordan impersonation anyone has seen or will see.

And then, only in the last few seasons, a Michael Jordan impersonation became increasingly obsolete. The alpha dog, attack-the-rim-and-hit-from-mid-range assassin has, in the space of just a couple years, suddenly become a relic.

To be clear – there was never any fool’s gold to Bryant’s game. He made so many of his off-dribble jumpers, his pull-ups and turnarounds and fadeaways, that he played efficiently even from the most inefficient spaces on the court.

Kobe Bryant was an old-school, cold-blooded scorer. He would beat defenders simply and directly, one-on-one. Willing to heave from wherever he felt comfortable on the court. The last, best of his kind, perhaps.

It’s been hard to watch at times these last couple years, though, as he has suffered multiple significant injuries and played poorly. He has steadfastly and stubbornly continued to spearhead a style outmoded. Bryant probably could have retired sooner – instead he has fought back each time, to rage against the changing mores of his sport in a way probably only he can.

His farewell tour will be a glimpse at what basketball has been as it speeds ever further into the future of what it will be, in the midst of the Golden State golden era.

At some point, hopefully, he’ll have a vintage showcase game – score 30 points, drain jumpers, attack the basket. Maybe even work his way over to the baseline and begin backing down some young, naive defender. Whip around. Fade away and release.

Simple, direct. Might even stand out a little strangely in the NBA’s brave new ball-moving, free-flowing world.

But it can be – and has been – pretty sweet when it works.

Anyone else?

Is Bryant’s mid-range isolation, take-all-comers style really going the way of the dinosaur, though?

It’s hard to look around the league and see a natural heir. But maybe, in the outsized frame of Kevin Durant, we can see a somewhat similar picture.

“I did idolise Kobe Bryant. I studied him, wanted to be like him,” Durant said when he learned of the Lakers legend’s retirement announcement. “He was our Michael Jordan.”

Durant is one the few of the game’s leading scorers who could be said to mimic a kind of Bryant, Michael Jordan inspired style. The Oklahoma City Thunder forward has always been a much better three-point shooter than Bryant, but he has historically enjoyed that mid-range area (41.3 per cent of attempts from 10-22 feet) almost as much.

Durant is not as outwardly like Bryant, but his game has a lot of that same cold ruthlessness.

“I just loved his approach ... it’s sort of like me, he wants respect from his peers and his teammates and he could care less about everything else.”

And watch Durant back down a defender and go up for a turnaround jumper some time. There’s a little bit of Bryant in there.

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Updated: December 1, 2015 04:00 AM

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