Begin with the understanding that Kobe Bryant is never out of shape during the season, save initial moments back from a lengthy injury absence. Like him, dislike him -- the indisputable fact is that he is a demon worker who prepares for games with the same passion as he plays them. It's one of the reasons he grew disgusted with Shaquille O'Neal in the lead up to their divorce. Shaq got lazy with success and Kobe seethed.
But this is worth tracking.
The United States plays Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni, Fabricio Oberto and defending champion Argentina in the Olympic semifinals Friday at 7:15 a.m. California time. Bryant turns 30 on Saturday.
Actually, he turns 30 on Saturday in the aftermath of the heaviest workload of his career, 103 games and 4,055 minutes with the Lakers, from the start of the regular season to the end of the playoffs without missing a tip, and during a summer dramatically shortened by the Team USA schedule. And now he's got finger surgery pending.
The age thing is just a numbers milestone. Figure it will matter not at all. He was the best player in the league at 29 years and five or seven or nine months, so a few extra pages on the calendar won't change that much. If anything, a full season with Pau Gasol and a healthy Andrew Bynum, per the Lakers' hopes and dreams, would mean less heavy lifting for Bryant in 2008-09.
It's an interesting coincidence, though, Kobe crossing the threshold at the very moment he's being taxed more than ever.
He just had his longest season. Never before had Bryant played all 82 and then logged another quarter-season in the playoffs. Never before had he reached triple digits in games. Only once before had he surpassed the 863 postseason minutes (973 in 2003-04).
He has an abbreviated summer. Mike Krzyzewski isn't exactly running anyone into the ground as the U.S. rolls through what will have to pass for competition -- LeBron James leads at 24 minutes a game, Bryant and Chris Paul are second at 21.5 -- but it has been a considerable time commitment nonetheless. Team USA opened camp in Las Vegas on July 21, practiced and played there, went to Macao, went to Shanghai, went to Beijing, and won't finish playing until Aug. 24.
He still has an operation pending on his right pinkie, an injury from February. He put off a corrective procedure to remain with the Lakers in the heated Western Conference race, then put it off to try and win a gold medal in Beijing amid incredible popularity in China. Surgery is expected sometime soon after the return to the United States and not cost him much of camp.
Long season, short summer, surgery, new season.
Good as ever?