Kobe Bryant is the "Black Mamba," a deadly predator who takes what he wants and destroys anything that gets in his way. What he wants, is to win seven championships—one more than Michael Jordan—with him at the controls, ball in his hands, so as to leave no doubt about his greatness.
Single-minded in his pursuit, he ran Shaquille O'Neal out of town and changed his number to 24, representing his 24/7 dedication to destroying his prey.
His aggressive approach has paid off. The Lakers' guard has won an MVP award, five NBA championships and is possibly on his way to earning a second Olympic gold medal while securing a legacy as one of the greatest players in the history of the game.
But the Mamba isn't quite as deadly as he once was. Kobe turns 34 this month and 50,000-plus minutes over 16 NBA seasons have taken their toll on his body. He has looked slow and tired during the London Games.
In fact, Bryant's game has been in decline for a couple of years. His first step isn't as explosive as it was a few years ago and he can't elevate over defenders the way he once did, relying instead on pump-fakes to get his shot off in traffic. Still a very good defender, he's no longer capable of locking down an opponent's best scorer.
Sure, Kobe averaged the second-most points per game in the NBA last season, 27.9 per game, but his efficiency was way down.
Bryant shot just 43 percent from the field, his lowest average since his second year in the league, and his accuracy from behind the arc—30.5 percent—was the worst it had been in 10 years.
Kobe is still capable of taking over a game for stretches at a time, as he demonstrated by scoring 20 points in the second half of Team USA's quarterfinal victory over Australia on Wednesday, but at this point in his career, he can't dominate for four quarters or close out games on a consistent basis.
According to Synergy Sports, Kobe ran isolations on 27.9 percent of his possessions last season, yet, shot just 37.3 percent on such plays. His 35.7 percent usage rate—which measures what percentage of a team's offensive possessions run through a player—was the highest in the league.
Keep in mind, these aren't the days when Bryant had to turn to Smush Parker to help carry the scoring load. He has two highly skilled seven-footers to work with in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
Bynum, who continues to develop into one of the best two-way big men in the game, averaged 18.7 points per game last season on 56 percent shooting and Gasol added 17.4 points per game while connecting on 50 percent of his attempts.
Far too often in crucial moments Kobe clung to his alpha male status and bailed out opposing defenses by launching low-percentage fadeaways rather than feeding one of the big men in the post. The result was a lack of cohesion offensively and a second-round playoff exit.
Now Kobe faces another challenge to his role as leading man with the Lakers' acquisition of Steve Nash. The longtime Phoenix Sun will be the first true point guard Bryant has played with during his illustrious career and like Kobe, is accustomed to dominating the basketball.
Nash's ability to initiate the offense and set up his teammates should pay great dividends for Kobe, allowing him to increase his efficiency while preserving energy. The continued development of Bynum in the post, along with the offensive skills of Gasol, should also create open looks for Kobe.
The Lakers reportedly plan on installing the Princeton offense, a distant cousin of the triangle offense the team had so much success with under Phil Jackson. If they implement the principles of reading and reacting to defenses with timely cuts and precision passing, the Lakers are capable of challenging the Thunder for supremacy in the Western Conference.
But that can only happen if Kobe gives up the ball.
Nobody on the team is going to take it from him like he took it from Shaq. Pau is too passive, Bynum too immature and Nash doesn't have standing in his first season with the club.
Bryant can still be the Black Mamba, a deadly assassin who feasts on his opponents. He just needs to be more selective about when to attack and must be willing to rely on his teammates to bring the prey to him.
In order to hold on to his pursuit of greatness, Kobe has to let go.