The Lakers were on the road about a month ago on February 6, playing against the Philadelphia 76ers and Kobe Bryant’s role in it couldn’t have been more symbolic of the current juncture in his career. With the first half winding down, fellow divorcé Matt Barnes threw Kobe a pass at the top of the key, as he settled in his feet, and rattled in the long step-back jumper for a bucket. That shot would have Kobe surpass legendary journeyman and former teammate Shaquille O’Neal on the all-time scoring list. However, as historic as this moment in Kobe’s career was, it also turned out to be a Lakers loss. Though the Lakers seemingly had the game won, Kobe shot the team out of it, making only 1 of his last 10 shots down the stretch, without ever running the offense through all-star teammates Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
On this historic night, Kobe further cemented himself as one of the greatest scorers in NBA history while driving his team down into the dirt for the ride. It was a road loss with more poetic undertones than a T.S. Eliot prose, as such, a question overshadowed the entire game: is Kobe Bryant becoming a burden to this team and franchise?
Aside from the unavoidable financial issues of his excessive contract, with the looming salary cap regulations of the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that will take into effect in the 2013-14 season (where he gets paid over $30 million dollars), something even more perilous lurks in the backdrop of this franchise lodged in a transition period — a superstar’s skills and ego both heading in the wrong directions.
And after spending time in the middle of his career trying to restore his image by signing $40 million dollar shoe deals with Nike or buying $4 million dollar diamond rings for his former wife, all while trying to understand the concept of deferring to teammates prodded to him by the national media, it seems he has lost interest in trying to understand the painstaking complexities of PR and the unrewarding endeavors of humanitarianism. What’s more, despite his age and laundry list of injuries, Kobe leads the league in Usage Percentage at 37.55; not far off from the highest usage percentage in NBA history at 38.74 (set by Kobe back in the 05-06 season where he averaged over 35 points per game).
Yet, much like he displayed in that enigmatic night in Philadelphia, he is using more then 50% of his time with the ball shooting difficult fadeaway jumpers from 16 feet and beyond. He’s settling for threes more than he has in years, in spite of the unsightly 28% clip. And while trying to spin, cross, and jive his way out of the double teams, he’s turning the ball over 3.9 times a game (the second highest total of his career). It appears Kobe is letting his sense of entitlement cloud over his sense of basketball intuition. We are witnessing him battle an existential crisis, unable to gracefully hand over the baton to his two all-star big men loitering around the paint while his skills escape him like the hair of a balding man circling down the shower drain.
The depleting skills will continue to deplete while the bloating ego will continue to bloat, while the Lakers continue to consider all options to retool this Laker roster — from trading Pau or Bynum, to trading both — they never once even glossed over the inconceivable idea of what to do with Kobe and his contract. Though Kobe’s services to the franchise for the past 15 years will be duly noted in the history books, the Lakers can’t let nostalgia get in the way of the raison d’être of sports: to win, and win as much as possible.
The last time a franchise did that, they were left in the sports purgatory for the next 15 years. The Celtics were coming to a cross roads with their OG Big Three — Robert Parish, Larry Bird, and Kevin McHale — who after a decade of championship caliber seasons, were found struck by mortality. Bird was dealing with piling back issues, while McHale was quickly corroding from that irrevocable leg injury he played through in their ’87 finals loss against the showtime Lakers. Having a chance to trade all their superstars — including Bird — for younger talent, the Celtics’ front office ultimately decided to stand pat, and let their players leave on their own terms if they chose to do so.
Thus, the ensuing 90s decade and much of the 2000s was not kind to this franchise. All the glory of the 80s began to fade away with the eternally unsatisfied sports world. Though Kobe and his fans would mutually enjoy him finishing his career in Los Angeles, giving one last chase or two for a championship ring to ride him off with, it must be realized that sports careers seldom ever unfold the way we intended them to. And Kobe, the Lakers, and fans alike will have to come to terms with the fact that he won’t finish his career hoisting a Larry O’Brian trophy as the 30-point heart-breaking maestro that once bemused the world.
As T.S. Eliot said, “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”
Paul Adams is a writer who lives in Los Angeles, follow him on Twitter @Yustomovic.
[Photo By kbryant8]