This is still Kobe Bryant’s team.
In a day and age where players are switching teams left and right, it’s a rarity to see someone stick with one squad throughout his entire career.
Bryant’s playing days aren't over yet, but whether you’re a fan or not—there’s really no in between, is there?—you have to admit that 16 years in one city is an impressive feat.
What’s maybe even more impressive is the duration for which Bryant has continued to be successful, if not down-right dominant.
At 33 years old last season, Bryant averaged 27.9 points—the second-most in the league—and was right on par with his career averages with 4.6 assists and 5.4 rebounds.
Bryant’s shot selection has always been a topic of debate, and while he shot just 43 percent last year, he remains one of the NBA’s top shooting guards, as well as one of the league’s most impressive scorers.
Despite rarely missing games, Bryant has been more banged up than he’s ever willing to show on the court. If he can stay relatively healthy over the next two years, and prove that age truly is just a number, he will remain the face of this famed franchise until the day he finally hangs it up for good.
That being said, there’s a reason Steve Nash and Dwight Howard were brought in this offseason.
The Lakers struggled mightily last year, and while Bryant is going to be the man again next season, he proved that he needs help if they’re going to take down the Big Four of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Nash should prove to be the team’s best point guard since Magic Johnson, and if anybody can get so many star players to work together on one court, he is going to be the guy.
Howard is arguably the league’s best offensive and defensive big man. He will thrive in the pick-and-roll game with Nash, and quite frankly, he will be the anchor defensively as long as he remains in L.A.
Don’t forget about Pau Gasol, either. The seven-footer should flourish from the elbow in pick-and-pop situations with Nash, but he should also be able to establish a nice high-low game with Howard if they can work together.
This team is going to compete as long as they stay together, but heading into next season, Bryant will be the one who takes them as far as they’re able to go.
Despite the stardom occupying the Lakers roster, Bryant will remain the No. 1 option.
If he can adjust to his new teammates in 2013, and be as great as he’s been throughout his entire basketball career, this team can truly compete out West right away.
If he can’t, the team is going to struggle in their attempt at another NBA championship.
Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA, and Bryant’s ability to coexist with a center who commands shots and a point guard who needs the ball to make plays has yet to be seen.
In the Lakers’ new Princeton offense, backdoor cuts and motion away from the ball will create for teamwork that was missing from the equation last year.
As successful as it has the potential to be, the new offense could also be disastrous if Bryant never adapts to an off-the-ball role with Nash running the offense.
If he reverts back to isolation basketball next year, chemistry is going to be an issue and locker room morale might suffer deep into the season.
But let’s be honest here; Bryant is hungry for another NBA title—the title that will tie him with the great Michael Jordan.
Another ring on his finger would mean the world to Bryant, and his hunger and determination should allow him to put any selfishness aside moving forward.
Bryant is a veteran in this league if we’ve ever seen one. He knows how to win, he can lead a team to triumph and he is as good as it gets in late-game situations.
This is still Bryant’s team, and he must remain the go-to option next season.
If he can’t adjust his game, or he shows that age has finally caught up to him, the team will never meet the lofty expectations that have been placed upon them this summer.
The questions are certainly there, but if Bryant can answer them, there’s no reason the Lakers can’t compete for another championship before it’s all said and done.