Will he or won't he? With two weeks to go until opening tip, there are still some very open ended questions as to whether or not Kobe Bryant will retire whenever the 2015-2016 season ends.
The Black Mamba has given some indications that his 20th campaign could indeed be his last, but during a year that could very well be yet another rebuilding slate, it's also difficult to believe that Bean would go out on a losing note. All things considered, many feel that one of the most legendary careers in league history is very much nearing its end and that every game should be treasured, as we may never quite see a career like this ever again. There is some notion that Kobe should simply announce his impending retirement, so that he could be properly celebrated in the city he now calls home, as well as throughout the country where opposing fanbases have hated but always respected him. Bryant has said he doesn't want a goodbye tour, but there's no doubt that the Lakers and the NBA at large would love to cash in on such a momentous string of games.
The potential fanfare and nostalgia that would follow the Mamba's final dance would undoubtedly be among the likes the league has ever seen. In the age of a secondary ticket market and instant video, Kobe's final season would be even bigger than the retirement campaigns of luminaries like Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It'd be an event unto itself in every single town he touched down in, with the off-court pomp and circumstance larger than the game itself.
But then again, what about the games themselves?
As much thought as we've put into Kobe's potential last season, his on-court impact seems to be an afterthought in a stream of teary goodbyes. Yes, there's been plenty of talk about how long Bryant's body will be able to stand up to the rigors of an 82-game season and how (or if) he'll be able to get along with his young, novice teammates. There's also been talk of where Kobe will slot into the starting lineup, especially with the presence of second-overall pick D'Angelo Russell and sophomore standout Jordan Clarkson. In regards to how much his play will actually help this Lakers team win, though? How his status on the court will elevate his squad? That, I haven't heard a whole lot of.
The reasoning here is multifaceted, but not all that complicated. There's no doubt that the also-ran status of this 20th iteration of the Bryant-led Lakers plays a large part. While L.A. certainly is fostering a promising young core, they are far away from prime time, let alone Showtime. Bryant's status as a star player has passed and there's no other All-Star riding shotgun to support him. They look like they could finish anywhere from 11th to 15th in the Western Conference and most likely no better than that.
And the biggest contributing factor to such a low, projected finish? Untested players, albeit untested players with potential, will be given time to shine, no matter what their skill level is. The '15-2016 Lakers will ride or die on the backs of Russell, Clarkson, Julius Randle and to a lesser extent, Anthony Brown and Larry Nance, Jr. They'll see how much they can learn from veteran professionals like Brandon Bass and Roy Hibbert.
As for Kobe's impact? I'm not quite sure.
Will Bryant, he of almost 20 field goal attempts per game for his career, be taking that many shots with so many young offensive-minded players by his side? Is Kobe going to be this willing and able facilitator to his teammates that certainly won't be finishing like Derek Fisher, Pau Gasol and Shaquille O'Neal? Can the Mamba be satisfied running shotgun to an inexperienced point guard who could finish the season with over four turnovers per contest?
Kobe's on-court impact won't be measured by how many points he scores per game or how many minutes he's on the floor. His ultimate legacy this season will rightfully be just how good he can make his young Lakers teammates and send them off in the right course toward future glory that he almost certainly won't be a part of. If all goes right, he'll be working with D'Angelo Russell on asserting himself at the top of the key as a play caller and working with Jordan Clarkson on his footwork in the high post. He'll show his teammates how to prepare for games with a sociopathic work ethic and sheer force of will. He will be a consummate professional that will defer personal statistics and pride for the sake of winning. He would remove himself from the spotlight and willingly take a lesser role not just for the sake of their development, but for the sake of winning.
Will Kobe Bryant do all of this? That's still up in the air.
Of all the professional athletes of their time, I've most often made the comparison between Kobe Bryant and Derek Jeter. Both men are two of the stalwarts of their sporting generations, two of the most hardworking and diligent of their peers. They've both transcended the sport to become multimedia international icons. The two of them share five rings a piece (both in seven attempts) and share far fewer personal accolades than their status would suggest, sharing just one MVP between the two. They are mirror images in so many ways that it's eerie, from their humble beginnings, to their early successes, to late career injuries, to certain Hall of Fame futures. Even with Jeter hanging up his spikes for good just over a year ago, the comparisons still live on.
In what was his 20th and final season, Derek Jeter still started every game at shortstop for the New York Yankees, manning one of the most physically demanding positions in all of the sport. Offensively, he batted second in all but 15 of his over 600 plate appearance that season, a slot in the order highly dependent on a solid on-base percentage and a little pop to supplement. It was a big request of any player, let alone a 40-year-old coming off of several severe leg injuries.
The results were predictably messy.
Jeter turned in 145 games of some of the worst everyday production in all of baseball. He finished the year with a pitiful .617 OPS and graded out as one of the worst defenders at his position. There was nothing Derek Jeter did as a player in 2014 that could justify his spot in the order or on the diamond. The Captain cratered in his final season in regards to his production, nose diving from a fantastic 2012 season two years earlier. I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say that he wasn't a MLB-caliber player in '14, but he certainly didn't play up to the standards of a starting shortstop, nor was he worthy of such a critical spot in the lineup. Leaving him there was a decision born of tradition, legacy and respect, rather than numerical wisdom and the simple eye test. ESPN analyst Buster Olney has mentioned it many times on his daily Baseball Tonight podcast -- keeping Jeter penciled in every day as the second hitter and shortstop on the diamond very well could have made the difference between the Yanks missing the playoffs, which they did, and potentially making them.
So the question now is, will Kobe Bryant and the Lakers coaching staff take the same approach? Will Bryant consent to a bench role if he struggles coming out of the gate as a small forward? Would he agree to fewer minutes and less shots if he feels he's no longer physically suited to that physical grind? Will he change his spot in the rotation if he continues to falter defensively? These are all very real issues that could come up as the Mamba tries to overcome two-and-a-half years of crippling injuries in his 20th campaign.
That being said, the parallels between Kobe and Jeter do diverge somewhat in what could be their final seasons. Unlike the Yankees, the Lakers probably don't have quite as good of a chance to make the playoffs as that team did, nor were they in the middle of a youth movement as is going on in LA at the moment. Whether Bryant plays like an All-Star or merely a replacement level, there most likely won't be a purple and gold postseason. However, as L.A.'s season will largely be gauged in how the young players grow, Kobe's role will be critical in their growth.