By Craig Fields
Comparisons to Michael Jordan are inevitable when you mention two superstars in the National Basketball Association. And those demigods are LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Depending on which side of the debate you fall, one thing that cannot be argued is the greatness factor of all three.
But of the two currently still in the NBA, the closest one to hanging up the Nikes for good is Kobe Bryant aka “The Black Mamba.” After struggling to stay healthy the past two seasons and only playing 41 out of a possible 164 games, many fans have started speculating as to whether or not it was time for the future hall of famer to retire.
The 37-year-old Bryant really does not have anything left to prove in the game of basketball. A five-time NBA champion, two-time NBA finals Most Valuable Player, one-time league MVP, 17-time all-star, and a three-time Olympic gold medal champion with Team USA are just some of Bryant’s achievements and accomplishments during his storied career.
So close to the end of such a decorated run, what else is there to prove? Well in one word, nothing. There is nothing left to prove for Bryant, except that he can still do in his late 30s what he could do in his mid-20s.
In the 41 games he played over the past two seasons he led the league in shots taken. But only in shots taken. He did not lead in points, field goal percentage, or any other stat that might constitute being a good teammate. Basically, he was taking a lot of shots and missing a lot of shots.
When asked about retiring, Bryant alluded to the injuries that have slowed him down in recent years.
“Yeah, as soon as the doctor told me, I was like, Jesus Christ, man, I don’t know if I can do another nine months,” he said.
Bryant was referring to the surgery and rehab it would take to fix a torn right rotator cuff that Bryant sustained in the 2014-15 NBA season. That, of course, is in Bryant’s shooting arm. Coming back from such a long layoff can have some adverse effects. An injury to your shooting arm can sometimes change a scorer’s mechanics because of the long layoff.
However, with the 2015-16 preseason wrapped up, Kobe has looked pretty good. Did anyone really expect anything different from the destined top-10 all-time player in NBA history?
The Lakers did decide to rest Bryant the last part of the preseason because of a leg bruise he sustained during a game. And that precisely is the issue with the 20-year veteran continuing to play in the NBA.
According to Sportingnews.com, Bryant knows that he can’t control the fact that time is beginning to take its toll on his body.
“After playing so many years (I know that), I could play 10 minutes and hurt some other (stuff). You know what I mean?” he said of the upcoming season. “At this stage all I can do is try whatever I can and be as healthy as possible, and if something goes, it goes. Father Time got me.”
Yep Father Time is undefeated. Just ask Jordan, Shaq or even LeBron who was playfully warned by Kobe that he is now an “old head” in the league and he better take care of himself.
Speaking of Jordan, the comparisons between him and Kobe are undeniable. However, one thing continues to elude Kobe and that is that all-defining sixth championship ring; that qualifying ornament that says, “See Jordan, I am every bit as good as you if not better.”
Allow me, if you would, to play devil’s advocate for a second. Now we all know that Kobe was a part of one of the best NBA drafts ever. The 1996 draft is widely considered by many to be one of the top three drafts in the history of the NBA, along with the 1984 and 2003 drafts.
Kobe was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers after being drafted by the Charlotte Hornets. Most people think that he was drafted by the Lakers but that was not the case. But he has spent all 20 seasons in the NBA with the Lakers.
Now, what if, for Kobe’s swan song, he decided to leave the Lakers to go pursue a sixth ring somewhere else. I know it sounds a bit sacrilegious but it is quite apparent that the Lakers are going to be bad again. Even with the addition of Roy Hibbert, rookie D’Angelo Russell, and Lou Williams, this team is still looking like a bottom dweller in the very tough Western Conference.
So, with that being said, if Kobe left the Lakers to go pursue another ring somewhere else, there is no doubt that the long-time Laker would be vilified, at least by the Los Angeles media and fans. However, if he does want another ring, he just might have to leave the city that has helped to make him who he is.
There was a time in the 2007-08 season when Kobe actually demanded a trade so he could leave the floundering Lakers. But, he had a change of heart after meeting with the late Dr. Jerry Buss. That was a trade, by the way, that might have changed the entire landscape of the NBA.
Bryant was going to be traded to the Detroit Pistons, who at the time were one of the best teams in basketball. They also were one of the only teams capable of taking on Bryant’s contract. But as we all know, it didn’t happen. The Lakers went on to win two of the next three championships.
However, if he did decide to demand a trade this season let’s look at a few of the teams that just might come knocking at the door to employ the services of the 37-year old.
The Portland Trail Blazers have about $16 million in cap space, the most in the NBA at the moment, and at one time I actually thought that this might be a decent fit for the two-guard. But since the major overhaul of the Trail Blazers, losing four of their five starters, they do not look like a very sexy team for which to play.
General consensus around the league is that head coach Terry Stotts is a heck of a guy to play for, so that wouldn’t be the problem for an aging superstar like Bryant. Stotts definitely would be an upgrade from current head coach of the Lakers, Byron Scott.
Lack of talent would probably be the ultimate reason that this trade would not go through. The Trail Blazers pretty much have one budding superstar on the team, and no one else. Damian Lillard is a highly-talented point guard, but it remains to be seen if he can actually carry a team by himself. With Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews, LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum all leaving to go to other teams, Lillard is the only starter returning this year to a hodge-podge type of roster.
So no, I do not think that this one suits Bryant’s criteria of a championship ready team. The next team on the list are the woefully untalented Philadelphia 76ers.
No. Just no.
The 76ers are so far from being a championship contender that a trade or even signing to the team in 2016 as a free agent for the 2016-17 season seems more far-fetched than the most ridiculous tall tale.
Of course all of this trade and free agency talk is a moot point if Bryant retires. According to Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak, after Bryant signed the two-year extension in the 2013-14 season, he said that he thought Bryant would retire at the end of the 2016 season.
“All indications are, to me, from him, that this (two-year contract extension) is going to be it,” Kupchak said. “If somebody’s thinking of buying a ticket three years from now to see Kobe play, I would not do that. Don’t wait. Do it this year.”
This is coming from a GM who knows Kobe rather well and has been with him for the last 15 years in the Lakers organization. Stepping away from the game that you love and occupying that time with something else entirely can be a little intimidating or scary for some.
“You really have to lean on muses and mentors going forward, just as I did as a kid,” he said. “It’s about having that next wave of things, which is scary as hell, but it’s fun at the same time.”
Being a professional athlete, the game pretty much encompasses your entire life. Even during the offseason, you are often thinking about the game. You eat, sleep and breathe the sport that you are making a living by playing.
However when that sport is gone, it becomes imperative, almost mandatory to replace that time used on thinking about the game, with something else entirely. Some people make the transition well, others do not. Who knows, maybe Bryant’s extensive knowledge and love for the game will lead him to coaching like the current head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, Jason Kidd. As soon as he retired, he earned his first coaching job with the Brooklyn Nets and never looked back.
One thing that is certain is that one of the most storied careers in all of sports is coming to an end soon. Regardless of where you fall on the supportive or unsupportive side of Bryant, one thing that remains true is Bryant forever changed the way the game has been played and definitely has placed his stamp in the history books.