Kobe Bryant recently commented on being afraid of what the future holds after basketball, which is understandable considering he's spent more than half of his life in the NBA, and that's not even accounting for all the basketball-filled years prior to joining the pros.
Before he sets off towards the next phase in his life, there's still a final act to be performed. Last season, he signed a two-year extension with the Lakers. He'll be 36 when the season starts. He's won five championships and still wants another. Everyone plays for the ring, but no player makes it feel like such a singular pursuit than Kobe. But take a glance at his running mates for next season—an aging Steve Nash, a rookie in Julius Randle, Nick Young, Carlos Boozer, Jordan Hill, Jeremy Lin—and it's hard to convince anyone this roster will make the playoffs in the hyper-competitive Western Conference.
For Kobe, next season is about answering two questions. Can he still perform at a high level after suffering two major leg injuries? Even if he's still an elite level player, can he elevate these Lakers to contention?
An underachieving team can often overshadow the individual brilliance of a player—see: Carmelo Anthony—which is why it's easy to forget how magnificent Kobe was during the 2012-13 season. You know, the one where they went from Mike Brown to Mike D'Antoni, barely made the playoffs, and this cover of Sports Illustrated was enshrined in the Sports Schadenfreude Hall of Fame.
Before he tore his Achilles tendon late in the regular season, Kobe averaged 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 6 assists per game. Earlier that season, he had a streak of 10 straight 30-point games. Just two days before his season-ending injury, he played all 48 minutes and scored 47 points in a 113-106 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.
He was also willing to adjust his style of play as the Lakers spent all season trying to find a consistent winning formula. At 17-25, D'Antoni decided to shift point guard duties to Kobe, in order to allow Nash to function as a spot up shooter. Immediately after employing this wrinkle, Kobe tallied more assists than field goal attempts for two games in a row. He had only accomplished that twice, in games where he played more than 30 minutes, in the previous 1,203 games of his career.
He took it as a challenge and explained his thought process, "I'm just open up to all possibilities. You just try to lay in bed at night and think about how we'll attack this thing and what are we going to do, what I can do to help us win ballgames. It seems like I kind of got my finger on the pulse a little bit."
Of course, it's much easier to expect Kobe to welcome these changes when he's on a team with championship aspirations. Individual sacrifices can be made for the greater good.
Perhaps Kobe will recognize his declining play and make a similar adjustment, to elevate his teammates, to build up the future of the team, a future that will likely not involve him by the time the Lakers are ready to be successful again. Or, without the end goal of a championship, he may eschew a more open-minded approach, and turn his attention towards the individual milestones that matter to him, be it another scoring title or climbing the charts for most points scored in league history.
The Lakers, as a team, aren't going to be very fascinating this season. But how Kobe reconciles his basketball mortality and approaches his final act is exciting and a little frightening to think about.
Not including last year when he played in just six games, Kobe has missed the playoffs just once in his career. The absence of team success and being a contender in the West is not a feeling he's used to, and certainly not one he will want to accept.
It was not long ago that it appeared Kobe's final act would include a chase for his sixth championship. The Lakers acquired Chris Paul, then they didn't. They assembled a core for the present and future with Nash and Dwight Howard, then watched as Dwight left for Houston after just one season.
Kobe's championship window appears shut. That's the reality, but Kobe will most certainly be the last person to acknowledge it. Watching him confront that very fact makes the end of his career worth watching, even if it might be painful to do so.
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