In an interview with Yahoo! Sports this past July, Kobe Bryant indicated that after two more seasons, the last two on his existing contract with the Lakers, he might well be done with the NBA. I'm not sure how many people really believe him, or whether he really believes it himself. Almost 16 years have passed since he played his first game in the purple and gold, and in that time he's become a towering, seemingly permanent fixture on the L.A. sports scene. Teenage Laker fans are too young to remember a Lakers team without Kobe Bryant. Kids who weren't even born the day the team traded for Kobe are now old enough to drive.
Imagining the Lakers without Kobe, and vice versa, is to envision a bizarre alternate world that's going to become reality sometime soon. Even if you think Kobe will go, say, five more years, all with the Lakers, that's not a lot of time to put on the clock. The moment is coming when Kobe will decide he's through playing professional basketball, and when it does it will rock the worldview of Laker fans like nothing except Magic's HIV announcement ever has.
For this week's roundtable chat, I asked the Silver Screen and Roll fam to issue some predictions about Kobe's endgame. Specifically I asked them to consider (1) how many more seasons Kobe will play, (2) whether that depends on whether the Lakers win a championship this season or next, and (3) whether there's any chance, even a little, that Kobe will someday play for a team other than the Lakers. (Does that last part sound impossible? Please take a moment to view this photo, this photo and this photo. Oh, and this one too.) As always the responses were thrilling and informative, not unlike a visit to your local library!
The Great Mambino
As our new writer Basketball Reasons pointed out last week in the comments section of his great maiden post, Kobe is such a complex person and player that trying to distill a singular answer regarding his behavior is extremely difficult.
However, since I don't want to be the doucher on this fine forum to get all meta, I'll say that Kobe will play four more seasons. Bryant has mentioned several times that he has no interest in playing as a role player on a great team, scoring anything less than 20 points per game.
We can give all the estimates we want, but the truth is that Kobe will stop playing when he's no longer a great, not merely good, player. It's common knowledge that Kobe keeps his body tuned to peak performance at all times. There are very few athletes in the league with such pristine genetics that simultaneously work as hard as Bryant does at staying in shape. After all, what type of psychopath travels to Germany to undergo a non-FDA approved treatment that might improve his knees? Oh, that's right, the Obsessive Compulsive Mamba. The truth is that at his age, a career-ending injury could be a pump-fake away. Even Kobe's unbelievable tolerance for pain and ability to adjust his game around maladies won't be able to overcome what could be in store for him.
Many people will point to Kobe's ferocious competitive fire and suggest that he'll have problems walking away from the game. That may be true, but I think that same desire to win is rooted in his being a dominating force during competition. I think it'll actually be harder for Bryant to be anything less than a featured player on the court than it would be for him to walk away altogether. I think Kobe could be a useful NBA player past his 40th birthday, but I think it's highly unlikely he'd even want to play that long. Four seasons seems like the longest amount of time he'd still be a very good player.
That being said, whether or not the Lakers win a championship this season, the next or the next, I can't see that being a determining factor for retirement. The key here is that Kobe is only going to play if he can be much better than average, so even if the Lakers were favored to win yet another chip in Kobe's 20th (!) season, that desire to collect his sixth, seventh or eighth title wouldn't be enough to overcome his tremendous pride and ego.
Now, the question is after his remaining two years on his staggering $58 million contract with the Lakers, how much will Bryant demand in salary? Dr. Buss and the organization have shown that no matter how great the player and how important he is to the franchise, no amount of nostalgia is enough for them to risk hamstringing future plans with deals for overpaid vets. For further proof, see O'Neal, Shaquille - 2004. Even for Kobe, who is already the longest tenured Laker ever in what will be his 16th season this year (Jerry West and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the next closest at 14 seasons), a new contract exceeding two to three years at $10 million annually is most likely out of the question. I think he'll be well worth that money in two years, but then again, Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss have shown to propensity to make tough decisions with surprising outcomes.
I expect that Kobe will be able to adjust his game as physical hurdles become more difficult, just as we've seen him in the past few years with a bigger emphasis on a deadly midrange game and an increased reliance on his ability to adjust his shot under the rim. Bryant hasn't gotten the credit he deserves to changing his style of play the past few years, but primarily because of how many shots he's still taking. However, he'll use these tools, as well as Dwight Howard, to stay effective well into his late-thirties.
Two seasons. That's all we have left with Kobe Bryant, so let's cherish it for every fleeting moment that we can. When he leaves it will be a sad day for Laker fans, and NBA fans, but it's a day that is visible from this distance. The light at the end of the tunnel? Yeah, none of us want to see Kobe go towards it. Fact of the matter is, though, there's just no way Kobe Bryant remains a Laker once his current contract expires.
It doesn't matter how many points he has accumulated through his career, how many accolades he has engraved into his legacy, or how many rings he can polish in his spare time once the NBA is no longer a part of his life. As soon as that contract ends, Kobe Bryant will never play a game in the NBA again. It's a harsh truth, but these two years have the potential to be some of the most exhilarating we've seen in his illustrious career.
The problem here is, yeah, maybe with a franchise guy like Dwight Howard in the trenches Kobe can elongate his time in the Association. Sure, with Steve Nash being the quarterback for the team Kobe's responsibilities are lightened and he can be a bit more hands off. But even if the Lakers win a ring this season, next season or both for that matter, Kobe will be a whisper in the wind thereafter, a number and a last name high in the rafters at Staples Center. It's this simple: if it don't make dollars, it don't make sense. For either side.
Kobe Bryant will make cool $27 million this season, and just another, ya know, $30 million the following. Contractually, where do you go from there? With two more seasons on his body, how can you even begin to justify paying him the same amount, let alone MORE, once he's no longer bound by ink? Would Kobe take a paycut to stick around? Maybe. But with all of that delicious freed-up cap space the Lakers' front office will have to play with, it's impossible to imagine them tying up even $10 million for that cause.
The Lakers are an empire, and once Kobe steps down from that throne, they will have a new champion to raise the purple and gold banner: Dwight Howard. The Lakers will be his team at that point, and Mitch Kupchak will need that tasty new cap space to make a new dynasty, a new team, to accommodate their centerpiece. As it currently stands, the Lakers will only have Steve Nash on the payroll once the Kobe-Pau era comes to an end. Not having to pay Kobe millions of dollars will provide the front office financial flexibility they haven't been able to utilize in quite some time: a luxury that will allow them to make a splash in the free agent market.
As far as Kobe post-Lakers? He will never put on another NBA team's jersey. The legacy means everything to Kobe, and retiring as an icon that played with only one franchise in his entire career is more than enough to deter him from it. I can definitely see him playing overseas, however. He has ties to Italy, for one. Second, while he may not be the elite player he once was, he will still be a great basketball player who can make his defender look silly and dominate a league that isn't filled with hyper-elite talent. Third, Kobe has spread his fame globally and an overseas team will be able to justify paying Kobe Bean obscene, filthy, amounts of money to be a part of their roster. Then again, Kobe is one of the most competitively driven players in the league, and if he isn't competing with the best of the best, why bother? Tough to say.
No matter what happens, though, there is one truth behind this that we will all agree on: Kobe Bryant's journey is close its end. Despite all the flaws and faults one can pick apart about him, let's revel in his greatness while we can. They just don't make ‘em like that anymore.
I do believe that Kobe's retirement decision will be informed by how many championships the Lakers win over the next couple seasons. If they win back-to-back titles in 2013 and 2014, Kobe's done. He'll have seven rings, an exhausted body and a strong argument that he's the greatest Laker of all time. That'll be enough to sate his competitive appetites, and he'll be done playing pro basketball.
If the Lakers win one or zero titles over the next two years, I think Kobe will weigh several considerations in deciding whether to keep going. Foremost among them will be the state of the Lakers. If Dwight is on a long-term contract and it looks like the team can remain among the league's elite, Kobe will have a strong incentive to return on year-to-year, cap-friendly deals (assuming his physical condition allows it). If it looks like the Lakers will be out of title contention for a time - for instance, if Dwight has signed somewhere else and there's no replacement superstar rabbit for Kupchak to pull out of his hat right away - Kobe won't stick around for another retooling.
Would he jump to another organization for a final season or two in his late thirties? Look, it's possible, but the likelihood seems vanishingly small. He's not Karl Malone, stuck on zero rings and desperate to get to one. Kobe already has five and by then might well have six. It'll be far easier for Kobe to say enough is enough, and far harder for him to swallow the huge pay cut that another team would demand. (Presumably any contender Kobe would consider joining will be at or above the cap and unwilling or unable to offer more than a smallish MLE deal.) The scenario just doesn't add up.
So I'll say Kobe plays three more years, all for the Lake Show.
It is hard to present this as anything other than conjecture since it depends so much on Kobe's mindset regarding when he is willing to retire, but I will venture that Kobe plays at least four more seasons. Of course, it is a given that he will play out his current contract, as he has $58 million reasons to do so, a considerable sum even to someone of Kobe's stature. After that, however, we enter a gray area. The Lakers will enter 2014 with no one on the payroll except Steve Nash and presumably Dwight Howard on an extension, and the expectation is that the Lakers will snag a secondary star among the numerous established names available that summer to pair with Howard for the future. Is there a place for Kobe on that new Lakers squad? I believe so. The Lakers will likely have the means to give Kobe a reasonable deal for his services should he desire to stay, and while his superstar days will be long over by that point, it is not outlandish to think that he would still be able to play at a high level. Whether on cuts, post-ups, or shots from mid-range, a lot of Kobe's game is not necessarily reliant on athleticism, and it is practically a given that he will find more ways to succeed as his physical abilities continue to decline. The next two years will already be an exercise in how Kobe will have to adapt to the presence of an elite pick-and-roll point guard and a superstar big man, and we can consider anything past that as an extension of that experience. The issue is how far along that road that Kobe is willing to travel - in other words, take more and more of a back seat in the offense and overall pecking order - until he feels that he is no longer comfortable playing on his own terms.
Does getting a title change that calculus? Maybe, maybe not. You can make an argument for either side: that Kobe sees the benefits of playing as such while getting a few rings along the way and doesn't mind having a few "hanging around" seasons wherein he is clearly not the top dog, or that not winning number six compels him to keep on going until he achieves that goal. We really have no way of knowing because it depends so much on Kobe himself. Is he willing to be Kareem post-‘87, a pale shadow of his former glory but still an effective player, or does he wish to step away before that becomes the case?
I find that scenario rather doubtful, but I can see Kobe re-upping for around two or three seasons in 2014 and seeing what the future brings him. After all, there is a long way for Kobe to fall before he approaches the level Kareem was at during his final seasons. Kobe, moreover, has made more than enough money to retire at any point on any new contract he receives, and should the Lakers reload as they always seem to do, adding to his considerable collection of accolades wouldn't be a bad way to wrap up his career. Whatever manner this turns out, however, I expect Kobe to play out his final years exclusively in a Lakers jersey, at least as far as the NBA is concerned. He has expressed interest in going to Europe, namely his childhood home Italy, in the past, which would serve as a nice capstone for his basketball journey, but I find the possibility of him leaving the Lakers for another NBA team almost impossible to process. He won't be tempted by money, the best possibility for him to win a title will be in L.A., and I sincerely doubt management does anything to alienate him in that period. No, Kobe will wear a Lakers jersey for his entire career, and we all will be quite mournful when he decides it is time for him to call it a career.
Figuring out Kobe's mindset in regards to his future is a very difficult question, and I don't think there's any doubt that the immediate returns from this summer's shopping spree will play a pivotal role in determining what happens in the years to come. The only sure thing I can say about this is that Kobe Bryant, more than perhaps any other player ever, knows and cares about cultivating the best possible legacy he can. He wants to be the greatest to ever play the game, and knows that it remains a steep mountain to climb to get there. He also knows that there are many different ways to write a legacy. You can win a ton of rings, you can score a ton of points, you can win a lot of accolades, and you can play at a high level for a very long time. How long do I think Kobe Bryant will play? Until he has reached some combination of the four that he believes gives him a shot at the title of greatest ever. Or until he has destroyed his body trying.
So if the new look Lakers go on a tear and win a couple championships in the next three seasons? I could easily see Kobe, with his seven rings more than any non Russell-era Celtic, deciding that was enough and hanging it up. If it becomes clear that Miami (or Oklahoma City) are too good and too young to be caught, and the opportunity for additional rings dries up, I could see Kobe playing for another 6-8 years until he's threatening the all-time scoring record. What Kobe wants to do with his career is be remembered as one of the greatest to play the game, if not THE greatest. He knows rings are the best way to get there, and so he wants those the most. But if he can't get them, longevity and individual prowess will be his next weapons.
If Kobe is forced to make that choice, all bets are off as to whether his career will remain 100% in purple and gold. Lord knows the Lakers love Kobe, and vice versa, but the Lakers also know how to move on before an era gets too stale. If they shipped a just past his prime Shaq while he was still in championship winning form, they'll do the same with Kobe if they have to, especially with Dwight Howard in tow to possibly build a long term future around. Kobe sure as hell won't want to leave, because staying with one team, especially when that one team doubles as the league's most prestigious franchise, is an important legacy-boosting bonus. So too is retiring while still a formidable player. I think Kobe would like to retire in the next five years, and do so in a Lakers uniform. But I think his trophy room will need to grow just a little bit more in order for Kobe to be comfortable making that choice.