This year's Los Angeles Lakers are not a good basketball team. Especially not in the daunting West, where their challenge is mostly to prove that they aren't the conference's bottom squad, but also not in general, not at all.
That said, the Lakers are not an unexciting team. When hyper-intelligent rookie point guard D'Angelo Russell takes the floor with young stallions Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, there is hope, and there is cause for highlight reels. Lakers fans, gluttons for gold after 16 NBA championships, are not used to watching a young core grow up so much as they're used to seeing big-money players replaced with bigger-money players. The more patient Laker followers must be finding some fun in the new experience of watching something build from the draft board up.
Or they would be, anyway, if not for the 37-year-old man running up and down the court with those electric kids. For 29.2 minutes every game, the Lakers center their offense around a legendary star who is now one of the slowest and least athletic guards in the league, a man who shoots 32 percent from the floor and holds the ball for long periods of time, often before launching into a cringe-inducing series of failed pump fakes, jab steps, and futile pivots before hoisting the ball towards but generally not into the basket. He has the highest usage rate on the team. He is attempting a career-high eight 3-pointers per game—tied for fifth most in the NBA—making just 21 percent of them. By comparison, Steph Curry, the league's MVP, shoots 10.8 3-pointers per game, but makes 45 percent of them.
This man, a first-ballot Hall of Famer in anyone's eyes, used to do outstanding things. He thrived on singular one-on-one wizardry and raw, untouchable, self-belief. For more than a decade, he seemed to make every wrong shot he took, and won an MVP trophy, five championships, two Finals MVP awards, and 17 All-Star appearances. Only two men have scored more career points than him. He's had one of the best careers in the history of the game. But man does Kobe Bryant ever look cooked.
Kobe was shockingly durable until tearing his Achilles in the Spring of 2013, and his path since has been a wild ride through the five stages of grief. On the heels of two seasons marked by injuries and sporadic play, Kobe came into the year seeming pretty well lodged in the denial and anger stages. His once-beautiful arrogance had collapsed into a dark and destructive hubris; he's held the franchise hostage over the past two seasons—both because of his gargantuan salary (amazingly his $25 million salary makes him the NBA's highest paid player this season) and his even more gargantuan and overarching Kobe-ness. During this period, the Lakers have carved out a Marvel-sized role for a man whose body—Bryant sat out Wednesday's loss against the Orlando Magic because of a bad back—has been boiled down to string beans. The results are about what you'd expect.
Bryant has raged against the demise of his basketball career by bickering with ESPN over player rankings that he perceived as a personal slight. He has called his young teammates "soft like Charmin" and screamed at Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak about the crappy roster. He has insisted that, even as we watch the Black Mamba shrivel before our eyes, Kobe is still Kobe, and that the parade is not yet over. His two-year, $48 million contract has stood as a sort of false testament to that (non) truth.
The Kobe show goes on. But the beginning of what is hopefully Bryant's final season has seen the legend fade into the grief stages of depression and acceptance. Never one for half-measures, Kobe appears to have sunk into full-on self-loathing after a stretch of especially terrible games. After shooting 3-for-15 in a bad loss to the Dallas Mavericks last week, he said "I suck right now. I'm the 200th-best player in the league right now."
Bryant has become both impossible to watch and can't-miss television—Kobe, the most exuberantly vengeful assassin of his generation and prince of the sport's most storied franchise, is now a lurid and strange example of decline. His descent is at once a gripping drama and a cruel charade of embarrassment. It's not polite or nice to watch a man fall, but Kobe's metamorphosis into the flailing inverse of his former self has been as fascinating to watch as he was at his vicious peak.
To watch Kobe play now is to watch him struggle with what used to be the greatest weapon in the league: his towering and bulletproof ego. That self-belief doesn't just compel Kobe to take shots; it allows him to see his struggles as somehow essential to his role as a mentor to the team's young core. "They don't want to see me approach it as an average player, or approach it as a player who's 20 years in," Bryant told Ken Berger of CBS Sports. "They want to and need to see that focus and that intensity and that energy and that drive. That's how they learn...that's how they want to learn." What made Kobe is now conspiring to unmake him, but it doesn't seem quite right to call him humbled by the experience
Bryant played basketball like he was eternal—like he was impervious to time, decay, or loss of any kind—and his legend will live long because of that. But no one and nothing lasts forever, up to and including the body and talent of a guard who has spent two decades giving the NBA everything it can handle and steadfastly refusing to stop going in.
In what was likely his last game at Madison Square Garden this past Sunday, the New York crowd chanted "MVP" during Bryant's free throws. He shot 6-for-19 in the loss to the Knicks, including 2-for-10 from behind the three-point line, where he takes nearly half his shots now; Randle and Russell shot 6-for-19 combined. The MVP chants were more tribute than anything else, but they were loud all the same. The man is dying as an athlete, raging and gunning into what promises to be a uniquely salty senescence, but his church will stay burning on his legacy for much, much longer.