Kobe Bryant

Two of the greatest players of their respective sports and generations are breaking down at the same time. In Peyton Manning's case, the decline has been more gradual and possibly aided by playcalling that minimized his weaknesses.

Kobe Bryant's arc has been almost the opposite: Though we've anticipated his decline through two major injuries that limited him to 41 games the previous two seasons, few projected such a cataclysmic self-destruction. Playing on a bad team with a below-average coach and an aggressive playing style outpacing his physical abilities, Bryant is a devastating car crash in super-slow motion. The tires are off, the windshield is shattered, the vehicle is airborne and the hood is spitting fire.

It's horrifying to watch, and yet, this has always seemed like the inevitable end for Kobe, who eats machismo for breakfast and flosses with willpower at night. Athletes tend to lose that inevitable fight against aging. The smart ones adapt, changing their playing style to prolong their careers and capitalize on the things they can still do well.

But Kobe has pushed forward with a stubbornness that promised to sabotage the tail end of his career. It's not the bad teammates or head coach that are causing Kobe's freefall. What made Kobe great is what's now bringing his career to an end.

Statistically, things couldn't be much worse. Before last season, Bryant had never shot less than 42.5 percent from the floor in a season. In 11 games this year, he's shooting 31.1 percent. Never a great three-point shooter, Bryant is averaging a career-high seven attempts per game this year, and making just 19.5 percent of them.

In points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks -- almost every major statistic -- Bryant has declined from last season. There's only one stat that has held the line: Free-throw percentage, which at 83.3 percent is almost exactly in-line with his career figure.

That makes a clear suggestion: Kobe's knees are gone. Anyone with two eyes and a television could tell you as much, but it's affirming nonetheless: For a shoot-first guy like Kobe, knee problems are the Grim Reaper knocking. Check out this collection of ugly misses from Tuesday night's game against Golden State:

Kobe is playing the way he always has, only now, his body is failing him. That's sad to see -- especially because Bryant insists on maintaining that approach to the game. He hasn't been shy about criticizing the players around him, but when Bryant is playing that poorly as the centerpiece of the team's offense, there's no other outcome but losing. He said after the loss to the Warriors that it wouldn't have mattered if he'd scored 80 points -- the team still would have lost. Maybe so, but that distracts from the team's primary problem: Kobe pretending that he's still Kobe.

Manning hasn't been such a liability to his team. His play hasn't been great this season, but he did enough to lead Denver to a 5-0 start. Even as he sits out to nurse a plantar fascia injury, his team is almost a lock to win its division and host a first-round playoff game.

We've seen signs that Manning is breaking down. Fans have been diagnosing it since he returned from his series of neck surgeries in 2012, and like a broken clock, they're finally right. Before the season, it was revealed that Manning no longer had feeling in the tips of his fingers, and hadn't since 2011.

His throwing strength had seemed to decline, but that didn't matter as much because, in 2012 and 2013, he posted near-career highs in completion percentage. In his first three seasons as a Bronco, he threw 131 touchdowns.

2015 has been much different. Manning's completion percentage dipped below 60 for the first time since his rookie year. His yards-per-completion also dropped, and he's thrown just nine touchdowns against 17 interceptions.

Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler

Injuries may be playing their part -- he threw four interceptions and was benched in his last appearance against Kansas City, in which he aggravated his foot injury. Even so, it's hard to deny that Peyton's career seems to be winding down. Yet we can't say so with the same confidence we've written off Kobe, and for a few reasons.

Some of them aren't fair comparisons to Bryant: Manning plays on a much better team, anchored by a great defense, and so the demands on him aren't as great as other quarterbacks. Meanwhile, Manning hasn't missed one-and-a-half seasons in the past two years to major injuries. But here's where Manning has an advantage over Bryant: He's more aware of his limits, and presumably more willing to change his playing style.

If Manning's arm strength has declined, there's no doubt he'll respond by avoiding deep throws, and focusing on shorter, snappier passes. Manning's decisions in the pocket can protect him from his shortcomings being so exposed. The same decisions are available to Kobe, but he's shown no willingness to make them.

As a result, you've got two versions of a similar ending to great sports careers. With Manning, you cling to the hope that he can reinvent himself, hit the right passes and put together another good game.

With Kobe, you grit your teeth and brace for the inevitable.

More: LeBron: Stop Comparing Me To MJ, Kobe, Oscar

Kobe Bryant: Season By Season

 

1996-97

Kobe and Shaq during introductions on opening night at the Forum. Bryant sets the NBA record for youngest player in a game at 18 years, 72 days. (Jermaine O'Neal and Andrew Bynum later break the record.) Bryant wins the Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend.

 

1997-98

Averaging 15.4 points, Kobe finishes runner-up to Danny Manning of Phoenix in the voting for NBA Sixth Man of the Year. At 19, he also becomes the youngest player to be a starter in the NBA All-Star Game.

 

1998-99

Bryant becomes a full-time starter during the lockout-shortened season and averages 19.9 points.

 

1999-2000

Bryant is named to the NBA's All-Defensive first team, and the Lakers beat the Pacers in the Finals to win the franchise's first title since 1988.

 

2000-01

The Lakers repeat as champions by going 15-1 in the playoffs when Bryant averages 29.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists.

 

2001-02

Bryant averages 25.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists in the regular season and makes All-NBA first team for the first time. He also wins the first of his four NBA All-Star Game MVP awards. The Lakers win their third consecutive NBA title.

 

2002-03

Bryant averages 30 points for the first time in his career, and also ties Michael Jordan's league record with 40 points or more in nine consecutive games. The Lakers lose in the second round of the playoffs to the Spurs.

 

2003-04

Bryant misses some games because of court appearances in Colorado for a case in which he was charged with sexual assault. The charges are eventually dropped when his accuser declines to testify. The Lakers, despite adding Karl Malone and Gary Payton, loses to the Pistons in the NBA Finals.

 

2004-05

Despite Bryant's 27.6 scoring average, this season is a nightmare for the Lakers. No longer coaching the team, Phil Jackson publishes a book that rips Kobe. New coach Rudy Tomjanovich quits midway through the season. The Lakers miss the playoffs with a 34–48 record.

 

2005-06

Phil Jackson returns as coach, and Bryant wins his first NBA scoring title with an average of 35.4 points. On Jan. 22, 2006, Bryant scores 81 points against Toronto, the second highest single-game total in NBA history behind Wilt Chamberlain (100).

 

2006-07

Bryant, seen mingling here with Michael Jordan and Julius Erving before the Slam Dunk Contest, wins his second All-Star Game MVP award. In March, Bryant has four consecutive games of scoring 50 points or more.

 

2007-08

Bryant wins the NBA MVP award for the first time after averaging 28.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.8 steals. The Lakers return to the Finals for the first time since trading Shaq in 2004, losing to the Celtics.

 

2008-09

Bryant wins his first NBA Finals MVP as he averages 32.4 points, 7.4 assists, 5.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks in the Lakers' 4-1 series win against Orlando.

 

2009-10

Bryant is Finals MVP again as the Lakers beat the Celtics in Game 7. In the series, Bryant averages 28.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.4 steals.

 

2010-11

Bryant has 37 points and 14 rebounds to win his fourth NBA All-Star Game MVP award, tying Bob Pettit's record. The Lakers' three-peat attempt ends in the second round when Dallas sweeps them.

 

2011-12

Despite injuries to his knees, wrist, ankle and shin, as well as a broken nose and concussion courtesy of Dwyane Wade's hard foul in the All-Star Game, Bryant averages 27.9 points. But the Lakers again exit in the second round of the playoffs, this time against the Thunder.

 

2012-13

The Lakers fire coach Mike Brown after a slow start, and in the second half of the season, Bryant's scoring gets the team back in the playoff hunt. But he tears his Achilles tendon on April 12 against the Warriors.

 

2013-14

Bryant returns from his Achilles injury in December but lasts just six games before a knee fracture ends his season.

 

2014-15

One of the highlights of this season comes on Dec. 14 in Minnesota when Bryant passes Michael Jordan for third place on the NBA's all-time scoring list. Bryant averages 22.3 points, but he plays just 35 games after sustaining a torn rotator cuff, which ends his season in January.

 

2015-16

In a 111-77 loss at Golden State on Nov. 25, Bryant shoots 1 for 14 and finishes with just four points. Four days later, Bryant announces he will retire at the end of the season. He finishes an emotional farewell tour with a 60-point explosion in his last game on April 13 against Utah.

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