Over the past couple weeks, three words have been bantered about over LA sports-media outlets, “Kobe should retire.”
When has Kobe Bryant ever listened to critics? Don’t worry, I will wait… Ok, now that we got that out of the way, we can also agree that Bryant has been trying to re-write NBA history since the fearless, spindly-framed 17-year-old hurled up his first three point shot from 33 feet out.
Over the years, the Mamba’s frame filled out, and so has his stat sheet. For all of the talk that Bryant is on the decline, there is hard evidence that the 17 time all-star is still playing at an elite level. In fact, outside of a bit of bad luck the past three seasons, one could argue that offensively Bryant is performing roughly as well as he ever has minus a few peak seasons.
Bryant has made a career out of doing what critics thought he couldn’t do. After winning three consecutive titles with the help of Shaquille O’Neal from 1999-2002, then only appearing in and losing two titles over the next six seasons without him; the knock on Bryant that was bantered about was that he couldn’t win a title without O’Neal. Bryant silenced all the critics when he linked up with Pau Gasol and made it to three straight NBA Finals from 2007-2010, winning the latter two, including two NBA Finals MVP awards.
Now the chatter is that he is over the hill. The adage, Father Time is undefeated comes to mind. However, when you really break down the numbers, Lakers have reason to be optimistic.
This season before suffering his shoulder injury, Bryant was averaging 22 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. Even a rabid NBA fan would be hard-pressed to name three current players that can claim those stats. Actually there are only three in the entire NBA. Lebron James, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are the only ones to match Bryant. Seriously, that’s the extent of the list.
What a career Bryant must have had to be considered on the decline and fit to retire, but still going blow for blow with the absolute upper echelon players in the league.
Bryant has also stated that his shoulder was actually bothering him pretty much the entire season and that might be the reason his shooting percentage was down this year. With that in mind, think about the possibility of Bryant returning with a healthy shoulder and rested body next season. Head coach Byron Scott has also made it clear that he will manage Bryant’s minutes much better next season. So, it’s entirely plausible that Bryant could actually play at an even higher level next year.
Perhaps Bryant’s most remarkable feat is that he has basically transformed his style of play from one icon to another. Everyone who has watched basketball the past two decades can see that Bryant patterned his game after Michael Jordan. However, after passing MJ on the all-time scoring list, Bryant began looking more like the other MJ, Laker great Magic Johnson. The self proclaimed “Vino” notched a career best 19 assists in one game as well as racking up two triple-doubles before his season ended. Currently, there are only two players with more than Bryant, Rajon Rondo and Michael Carter-Williams.
Bryant’s greatness throughout his career is one hundred percent the reason why many think he should hang up the uniform. Fans do not want to see their favorite player fizzle out at the end of their career like Kevin Garnett on the Nets, playing bench minutes and clearly a shell of his former-self on the court. That is not Bryant right now.
Some also beg the question, why would Bryant want to come back to such a bad team?
Yes, the Lakers are a bad team right now. For some, that may be discouraging for a star player in his final years. However, if we have learned anything through Bryant’s career it is that he is the ultimate competitor. Where many see a struggle, Bryant sees opportunity. Lifting the Lakers back to greatness is just another motivation.
The life-long Laker, with purple and gold running through his veins genuinely cares about the trajectory of the organization after he is gone.
Another value added component of Bryant returning is that he will serve as a mentor to usher in the new regime of future stars like Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, not to mention the potential two or three first round picks that the Lakers may have next season.
There is so much doom and gloom surrounding the state of the Lakers organization right now. The narrative is that they are a bad team and are a long way from being good again. I contest that they have a legitimate chance of turning it around as soon as next season.
In addition to multiple first round picks next year, the Lakers will also have Randle returning, who most insiders believe will be an all-star caliber player. Clarkson could turn into one of the steals in the draft. Since being moved to a starting role, Clarkson is averaging 17 points per game. In addition to the stock-pile of young talent the Lakers will undoubtedly have, they will also have a ton of cap room.
For the Lakers and Bryant, the future is much brighter than most realize.