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Ted Green: Is Kobe Bryant getting old?

I can tell you one thing about Father Time from personal experience. The guy plays no favorites.

In other words, everyone gets old.

The question at hand here, and, boy, is this a touchy one for Lakers fans: 

Is Kobe Bryant getting old?

Well, of course we know that. At 31, he's getting old-er. Fourteen seasons of NBA mileage, coupled with long playoff runs and representing our country on the world stage will do that to anyone. He's already played more career minutes than Jerry West when Mr. Clutch retired at 36. The old grump Kobe has been really great, and really fun to watch, for a really long time, but now I'm beginning to wonder, just how old is he?

Sure, I know. The six buzzer beaters this season. Incredible. The guy is still the Eighth Wonder of the World at the end of games. And, yes, he could be beat up and hurt. For sure, despite his brave and consistent denials, that busted finger wrapped in heavy black gauze has got to be affecting his shooting.

Most Lakers fans will adamantly insist: C'mon, he's hurt and he's still fourth in the league in scoring.

It's all true.

But I'm not looking at the finger. I'm not even looking that hard at the 5 for 24 against Utah the other night, followed by the 8 for 24 against the Spurs on Sunday. Or nights like the 14 for 37 at Portland (ball hog, anyone?)  All volume shooters have those nights; Michael Jordan did, too. And they're gonna pop up with Kobe, who truly relishes taking shots with high degrees of difficulty, if not off the impossibility chart altogether.

What I'm seeing for four decades of covering this game is more subtle. How opponents are defending him more brazenly and with more success. How he isn't able to beat guys one-on-one quite as easily as he could even one or two years ago. How he sometimes has to pump fake two, three, even four times to try to shake a defender, get him to bite.

Now maybe he's saving it right now for another long and intense playoff run. But I was shocked -- and I don't use that word loosely the way it's often tossed around so flippantly in the news business -- to hear ABC's Mark Jackson openly questioning Kobe's athletic mortality, his possible sudden aging on the court, during Sunday's national broadcast.

Remember, this is a network that's in bed with the NBA, making lots of money by the marketing and selling of NBA stars. It's always in the network's best interest to promote these icons and sports idols, the real megastars like Kobe, yet here was Jackson, saying this:

"Take a look at Kobe Bryant. You wonder, when is he gonna get back to that live body, the guy who carried the Laker offense and seemed invincible? Right now, his moves offensively are more like a grind. It's a struggle to score. Guys are doing a great job defending him."

Jackson, a former NBA All-Star himself and very well-acquainted with Kobe's game from the closest possible vantage point, having competed against him, also said: 

"He's not dominating on the offensive end and that has to be a concern for the Lakers.

"As I'm facing the Lakers, my one concern is, there's a guy there that I have no answers for. That's what we're used to (seeing). 

"Right now teams have to be thinking, 'We can contain him.' The way he's playing right now, he's containable."

Kobe Bryant, containable? OMG!

I apologize. I wasn't shocked when Jackson said those things. Flabbergasted is more like it.

Now if I'm wrong (and it wouldn't be the first time), and if Kobe goes off in the playoffs, this blog will disappear into cyberspace even faster than usual. Hopefully, I'll be lucky and any record of it will be conveniently destroyed in a fire.

But on the chance I'm right and just plugging into this a little sooner than Lakers fans wants to -- or Kobe's adoring media dares to -- then it raises quite the question for Lakers owner Jerry Buss.

Did the veteran poker player go bust by giving Kobe an $84-million dollar golden parachute? A sweet thank you for helping ratchet up the value of the Lakers' franchise to nearly a billion dollars, according to Forbes magazine?

Will Buss have an aging star with an untradeable contract on his hands?

And, if Kobe is feeling the effects of something that happens to every athlete no matter what their name is, then how gracefully will he be able (or willing) to transition the major scoring load over to Pau Gasol, to shift the very balance of the Lakers' star-driven attack onto his teammates?

Those questions are for another day. And even if he is 70th in the league in field goal percentage, 115th in 3-point shooting percentage, yet No. 10 in most turnovers, no one's saying Kobe is anywhere near Muhammad Ali, laying on the ropes while Larry Holmes punches him into Parkinson's disease.

But believe me, if No. 24 doesn't lead the Lakers at least into the NBA Finals, even if the champs get taken down by the Cleveland Cavaliers, the principal question posed here -- Is Kobe getting old? -- may be asked a lot more frequently in the near future, and by many more than just me.

-- Ted Green

Green formerly covered the Lakers for the Los Angeles Times. He is currently senior sports producer for KTLA Prime News.

 
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