There's not much more that can be said about Kobe Bryant's last game that hasn't been said already. Simply put: it was unbelievable. As a fan inside Staples Center witnessing the final performance of Bryant's illustrious career, it was one of the greatest events I have ever experienced. I will never forget it.
With about week having passed since that final game against the Utah Jazz, I thought my emotions from the game would be diluted, maybe the atmosphere of the entire spectacle over hyped the real performance. In reality Kobe Bryant's performance, and the night as a whole, has seemed more and more amazing to me with each passing day. Even with people that are not Lakers or Kobe fans trying to degrade what Bryant did because he shot the ball 50 times, or because the Jazz weren't really playing defense, or the refs weren't calling fouls on the Lakers.
None of it matters.
This wasn't a game for casual basketball fans or Kobe haters. The spectacle was for Lakers fans and this game will forever be important to them, no matter how many times people want to discuss all the negative aspects of his final season, or that his 60 point performance was in a meaningless game. The game meant something to the city of Los Angeles and Lakers fans everywhere.
It still hasn't set in that Kobe is actually gone, and it won't until media day comes around in September and everyone is looking for the man that's been at every Lakers media day for the past 20 years and he'll be nowhere to be found. Maybe it won't set in until that first game that goes down to the wire and we are all waiting for the Black Mamba to take over, but eventually the finality of Bryant's absence will set in.
In his place are a bunch of questions.
Who will take the torch from Bryant? Hopefully D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson or Julius Randle can carry the franchise forward, but they have a long way to go in their development if they are going to be the center-piece that leads the Lakers to their 17th championship.
Some are looking to free-agency or this year's up-coming NBA draft for the next franchise player. Let's not forget that it's basically a slightly weighted coin flip (55.8%) in the Lakers favor that they keep this years pick, given that it's only top 3 protected.
Even if the Lakers do keep the pick, finding the next franchise player in the draft is not a forgone conlusion. Looking to free-agency the only player that can change the course of the Lakers franchise drastically is Kevin Durant. If we're honest, the Lakers don't have a great chance at signing him.
There are, however, a few second tier free agents that could help the Lakers build a good core, such as Hassan Whiteside of the Miami Heat and DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors. Whiteside and DeRozen don't seem to be the players that can take the Lakers back to championship contention on their own, but they might make Los Angeles more attractive to someone like Russell Westbrook, who is a free-agent after next season. Westbrook appears to be the guy that would enjoy the challenge (as well as the glory) that would come along with leading the Lakers back from the worst years in franchise history.
But regardless of whether it's Westbrook or another player to eventually fill it, the Lakers have a gaping void at the center of their franchise after Bryant's farewell. The Mamba is out, now who's going to take his place?
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