For nearly two decades, Kobe Bryant has been the constant for Los Angeles Lakers fans, the security blanket that made up for lacking rosters with his incredible combination of skill and willpower. From Del Harris and Dennis Rodman to the Mikes (Brown and D’Antoni) and Dwight Howard, Kobe rode out the turmoil and ensured that everything would be OK. When the chips were down and the Lakers had their backs against the wall, Kobe was always there to bail them out.
Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever. As easy as it is to remember a young Bryant escorting singer Brandy to his high school prom and winning the dunk contest at 18 years old, those days are long gone. So too are the three-peat with Shaquille O’Neal, the MVP season, 81 point game, and the rings won with Pau. It all feels like yesterday, but reality is that time passes more quickly than we are comfortable with. We watched a boy become a man, and then, suddenly, grow old before our eyes.
Kobe spent years beating the odds and playing through injuries that would have felled lesser men, but Father Time can only be delayed for so long. Now, with his debts coming due, Bryant is faced with an impossible decision: retire a superstar or play long enough to become a role player.
Today, we take a look at the argument for Kobe Bryant to walk away from basketball at the conclusion of the 2015-2016 season.
The Case for Retirement
Over the course of Kobe Bryant’s 19 NBA seasons, he has had a number of accolades bestowed upon him, including the league MVP, All-Star Game MVP (four times!), Finals MVP (twice!), 15-time All-NBA selection, 17-time All Star, two Olympic Gold Medals, one FIBA Tournament of the Americas Gold Medal and of course last season, he passed Michael Jordan to become No. 3 on the all-time scoring list. Oh, and we can’t forget that he’s also a five-time NBA champion.
In other words, Kobe Bryant has been a very busy man. He attacked his career as a professional basketball player with an aggression rarely seen, a hell-bent determination to squeeze every ounce of potential out of his mind and body. His workouts are legendary; grueling, Spartan-esque reflections of his obsessive personality. With little patience for those who weren’t willing to match his drive, teammates were forced to either get on board or get run over.
Fans have always lamented stars who never quite reached their full potential (Shaq with Kobe’s work ethic would probably be the greatest of all-time), but none can deny that Bryant has gotten the absolute maximum out of his gifts. While he would have loved to have caught his idol, Michael Jordan, in the championships department by getting a sixth ring, that doesn’t appear feasible with the current Lakers roster and Bryant has no intentions of leaving. With No. 6 out of the question, there frankly isn’t much left to do on the basketball court that Kobe hasn’t already done. The mountains have been climbed and the giants slain, leaving little for a weary warrior to do, but look back and smile.
Furthermore, the injuries are beginning to mount, robbing Bryant of some of the athleticism that made him who he is…or was. For so long, he seemed like the basketball version of the Wolverine, impervious to the ailments that cut so many careers short. Hurt, sick, food poisoned– it didn’t matter, Kobe almost always found a way to adapt and overcome. We’ve even seen him shoot — and score — left-handed after tearing his rotator cuff and drain free throws to tie a crucial game with a torn Achilles. It’s tragically ironic that Bryant, who seemed nearly immortal, saw his downward slide truly begin with the Achilles injury, the infamous tendon that also destroyed its invulnerable namesake.
Yes, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Kobe Bryant is mortal, and even he has a breaking point. Over the past two seasons, he has played in just 41 of a possible 164 games, and each of the past three seasons has ended prematurely due to a serious injury. In March of 2014 The Orange County Register put together this staggering infographic:
Keep in mind that this was created before Bryant’s season-ending rotator cuff tear in early 2014, so add that one to the list.
While fans are hoping that Bryant’s injury woes will subside, Charles Barkley eloquently summed up how dire the situation is when he said:
“Old people don’t get healthy, they die. Old people don’t get healthy. Father Time is undefeated…You can get in great shape in the summer because you’re playing against air. Air doesn’t hit back.”
He’s right. The rigors of an 82-game NBA season can be brutally exhausting, and it’s a difficult environment to thrive in when the body just doesn’t recover like it used to. Injuries linger, and every tweak or twist has a higher potential of catastrophe.
If Bryant retires at the conclusion of the 2015-2016 season, it would prevent an Olajuwon-in-Toronto situation, where a player hangs on so long that they become a shell of their former self. Injuries and aging can take so much from us, and it can be painful just to watch the process. While none can question Bryant’s determination, no one wants to see a diminished, struggling Kobe hobbling up and down the Staples Center floor.
It’s not all dark clouds and rainstorms though.
Kobe Bryant isn’t finished, not yet anyway. He still has basketball left in him, still has something to show the city of Los Angeles. For one more season, Kobe can continue to play at a near-superstar level. While no one expects him to fly through the air like he did at 23 or average 41 minutes per night like he did at 27, he can still be effective in a sub-30 minute role as one of the featured players in the offense. It may require that he sits out a few games here and there for recovery, but for one more season, Kobe Bryant can be Kobe Bryant, and can exhaust whatever he has left in the tank, giving a lasting memory to the city that he’s already given so much to.
Of course, he is nothing if not a winner, and barring an unforseen turn of events, Bryant unfortunately won’t be able to add a Jordan-tying sixth championship ring to his trophy case. Retiring so close to that goal won’t be easy, but there is a way to take a little bit of the sting off: winning a third Olympic Gold Medal in Rio. He would need to prove that he still deserves a roster spot on that team, but assuming he is able to do so, Kobe would have an excellent shot at riding off into the sunset as an Olympic Champion, which may be consolation enough. It would be as fitting of an end as a champion could hope for, anyway.
For the Lakers franchise, it won’t be a happy day when Bryant does decide to walk away, but with every disappointment comes a new opportunity. Kobe may be the greatest Laker of all-time, but there is a general feeling that his presence (and cap hit) has prevented other superstars from wanting to sign on with the purple and gold. While many stars have disputed this notion (including the prize of next summer, Kevin Durant) there is still the sense that it may be time for a new generation of Lakers to form their own identity without the massive shadow of a Black Mamba hanging over them. A Lakers team built around a young core rather than the aging Kobe may well be more attractive to future free agents, expediting the rebuilding process.
That doesn’t mean that Bryant will be cast aside, but simply that we may be at the point where a separation between the Lakers on-court product and Bryant may be natural. Change is always uneasy, but there comes a point in time where artificially maintaining something past its expiration date can be damaging to both parties.
For nearly two decades, Kobe Bryant has meant everything to the Lakers and their legion of fans. He has made an impact far beyond what anyone expected when he came into the league as an 18 year old rookie, but eventually all good things must come to an end. He’s destined to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, his jersey in the rafters and a statue in front of the Staples Center to be admired by generations to come. Still, all that won’t make things any easier, and should Bryant decide to retire at the conclusion of the season there won’t be a dry eye at Staples Center on April 13th.
However, no path is set in stone and no outcome is guaranteed. Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a look at another road, one that, if taken, would allow Kobe Bryant a few more years in the sun.