LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant is turning 36 Saturday, which means his career may or may not be flickering like a birthday candle.
Shaquille O’Neal and Steve Nash were All-Stars at that age. Tim Duncan averaged more points and rebounds than he had in either of the two preceding seasons. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still hoisting unguardable sky hooks in a career that would span six more seasons.
Then again, 36 can also be a tricky age for an NBA player.
Charles Barkley was slogging through one of his final injury-plagued seasons. Michael Jordan was between his glory years with the Chicago Bulls and his gory years with the Washington Wizards. Hall of Famers Isiah Thomas and Larry Bird had already retired.
Bryant, the Lakers’ best hope to become the Lakers again after a season that included 55 losses and only six games involving the oft-injured superstar, will have lots of reasons to contemplate his basketball mortality on his birthday.
There will be plenty of best wishes … and fingers crossed for sustained good health.
“I will call him and say, ‘Happy birthday, old man,’” joked Byron Scott, Bryant’s new coach and former Lakers teammate who turned 36 during his final season in 1996-97, which also happened to be Bryant’s rookie year.
Bryant’s age might not be the most worrisome number as he approaches his 19th professional season. He has also logged 54,208 minutes of NBA action, including the playoffs, over 1,465 games. Tack on his appearances with Team USA in international competitions and Bryant’s basketball odometer may be about to roll over.
Bryant recently told Sports Illustrated he was “70 in basketball years.”
“There’s so much tread on those tires already, it’s hard for a pit change when you’re turning 36 on some of those tires, man,” said Hall of Fame shooting guard Reggie Miller, whose NBA career ended at 39 in 2005. “It’s tough.”
That’s not to say that Miller thinks Kobe is incapable of being Kobe. Miller said he expected Bryant to average between 21 and 23 points per game this season because of his superlative shooting ability, mechanics and “the best footwork since Michael Jordan in terms of pivots.”
The question is whether the explosion that has made Bryant one of the most dynamic shooting guards of the last two decades remains intact.
“Will that quick first step be there?” asked Miller, now a TNT analyst. “That remains to be seen. I hope so, but we all know Father Time is undefeated, so if he can find a way to dodge and duck and weave from Father Time, great.”
Bryant’s body hasn’t withstood a full 82-game schedule since the 2010-11 season. He missed eight games during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the final four games of the 2012-13 season and 76 games last season while recovering from a torn left Achilles’ tendon and a fractured left knee he sustained six games into his comeback.
Of course, there is an upside to playing less basketball over the last 17 months than at any point since he was a tyke.
“Quite honestly, I think we’re going to see a better Kobe Bryant than we’ve seen in the last couple of years because he’s had time to rest and rehabilitate,” said Dr. Alan Beyer, executive director of the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, Calif.
Beyer said Bryant is not at an increased risk to reinjure the areas that sidelined him last season but acknowledged he is more susceptible to injuries associated with advanced basketball age.
Working in Bryant’s favor is an almost maniacal devotion to staying in shape and perfecting every aspect of his game. Scott said he had to tell Bryant to cool it when Bryant talked about wanting to play pickup games nearly two months before the start of training camp.
“I was like, ‘Slow down a little bit, Kobe,’” Scott said.
There could be a more awkward conversation in the days ahead. Scott said he had a target number of minutes per game in mind for Bryant — though he would not disclose it publicly and has not discussed it with his best player — intended to keep him fresh for what Scott hopes is a playoff push late in the season.
It could be a hard sell for a player notoriously stubborn about his playing time. Bryant averaged nearly 46 minutes a game in the six games preceding his Achilles’ injury in April 2013 and was on pace to play all 48 minutes against Golden State when his left foot buckled late in the fourth quarter, all in the name of helping the Lakers reach the playoffs.
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Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said Bryant’s willingness to adhere to a minutes restriction might be contingent on the team’s success, meaning fans can only hope the supporting cast of Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer and rookie Julius Randle wildly overachieves.
“If things are going well, I don’t think there will be a problem with him buying in,” Kupchak said. “It’s when things aren’t going well and maybe we’re not playing as well as he thinks we should be, things of that sort, that he may feel that he needs to play more, do more.”
Kupchak has peered out of his office window overlooking the team’s practice court on multiple occasions this summer to find a sweaty Bryant getting up shots. The executive conceded he can’t help but fret about Bryant overexerting himself in what could be his second-to-last season should he retire at the end of his two-year contract.
“He hasn’t played much the last year and a half,” Kupchak said, “so, yeah, I do worry a little bit.”
Typically defiant when he met with reporters last month at his camp in Santa Barbara, Bryant said he felt “sharp, crisp” and was already at 218 pounds, a weight he usually reaches late in a season when he has slimmed down.
Bryant has more motivation than quieting the doubters who consider his five championships and one most-valuable-player award relics of a past era. He trails Jordan by 592 points for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, meaning Bryant could surpass his longtime rival around Christmas if he averaged 20 points and didn’t miss any games.
How Bryant goes about scoring those points in the twilight of his career is of nearly universal interest. Scott said Bryant will operate closer to the basket than he had in recent years under coaching predecessors Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni.
“He will be on the low box, he’ll be in the mid-post, he can be there a lot more than he has in the past and I think he can be very, very effective in all those areas,” Scott said.
James Worthy, the former Lakers great who now covers the team as a Time Warner Cable SportsNet studio analyst, said he expected Bryant to make the changes necessary to remain one of the game’s top players.
“I still think Kobe has a very dominant game left in him,” Worthy said. “It may not be above the rim as we remember it, but he’ll get into the savvy game of the bump and fadeaway or the post-up game. He’ll become more of an assist guy, more of a guy who throws (out of) a double team.”
What Bryant won’t become, in all likelihood, is someone willing to defer in the final minutes of a close game. That is, assuming his 36-year-old body allows him to be around to take the last shot.