Kobe Bryant was born to score. He's made that very clear during a 16-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers in which he's piled up 29,484 points—fifth all time in NBA history, seventh in NBA/ABA history if you include the numbers accrued by Dr. J and Moses Malone with the red-white-and-blue ball.
He'd likely need to play at least another five or six years to catch fellow Laker legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar atop the list, though Kobe wouldn't seem too keen to stick around that long when you hear him tell it.
If Kobe plays his cards right, though, he won't need nearly that much time to equal another legend in another, more historically significant category.
I'm referring, of course, to Michael Jordan—the standard-bearer for swingmen—and his six career NBA championships. The Black Mamba already has five to his credit and may well wind up with a sixth of his own at the end of the 2012-13 season, now that the Lakers have added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to his "supporting cast."
Interestingly enough, GM Mitch Kupchak's brilliant offseason moves have only intensified the pressure under which Kobe will play during the upcoming campaign. Rightly or wrongly, Kobe will be vilified by the basketball world (and even by some folks in LA) if he "screws this up," if he fails to lead another victory parade down Figueroa St. next spring.
You'll hear all the same tropes before, during and (possibly) after the season about how Kobe's too old, too selfish and too concerned with his own individual accolades to make it work, even with an all-star cast.
There will be memes about Kobe's passing (or supposed lack thereof) and endless debates between Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless over which bloviator can bury him in a more verbose fashion.
Thing is, it isn't just Kobe's ego that may or may not be the main impediment to the Lakers writing a happy ending for themselves. Again, Kobe is a scorer, first and foremost. It's been his life's work to put the ball in the basket at a prodigious pace, sometimes to the detriment of his own team's success.
But to assume that Kobe, at 34, is willing to trade winning for numbers is to overlook another distinct possibility—he believes (perhaps instinctually) that his team's interests are best served with the ball in his hands. It's simply in his nature to take shots when his team is down, regardless of who else he's playing with.
Not that such a fatalistic approach is of any comfort to fans of the Purple and Gold. If anything, it'd suggest that there's no changing the Mamba. What you see is what you get.
By the same token, Kobe's no fool. He's a thinking man's basketball player, perhaps the smartest of his peers. As Kobe told Graham Bensinger of Yahoo! Sports prior to the 2012 London Olympics, he's scrutinized his own game before, wondering whether he should shoot less and pass more.
Yet, even in those times of doubt, Bryant has come back around to the same advice that His Airness once bestowed upon him—be yourself; play your game and others will adjust.
In that wisdom from MJ lies the key to the Lakers season. Yes, Kobe would be wise to tweak his game somewhat. He'll had to get used to having Steve Nash handling the ball and Dwight Howard doing much of the scoring down low.
But, Kobe's fundamental mission is the same. He wants to win, and his biggest contribution to such an endeavor will come in the scoring column.
That's been the Mamba's modus operandi all along, including those five seasons that've ended with another bejeweled ring on his finger, and it isn't likely to change any time soon.
It's not about Kobe changing, so much as learning to be himself within a different context. He can be the Lakers' go-to scorer without dominating possession of the ball. He can be the focal point of the team without trying to be the team itself.
Kobe should be amenable, if not entirely adaptable, to such circumstances. He won three titles as Shaquille O'Neal's superstar sidekick early in his career, and after a bit of a rough patch, came into his own as the best player on two championship teams with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum by his side.
His recently reduced role amidst Team USA's journey to the gold medal should serve as a template (albeit in the extreme) for how Bryant might settle in as a specialist going forward.
The Mamba knows what it takes to win, and as his retirement talk indicates, he seems to understand that he can't carry a team all by himself if that team's going to win anything of consequence. Nobody's asking him to be anything other than a scorer, but rather that he tone down the extent to and frequency with which he takes over games in that role.
Kobe's no dummy in this regard. As Steve Kerr recently remarked to Ben Bolch of The Los Angeles Times with regard to the Lakers' star-studded lineup coming together:
I think it will happen quickly because they have guys who are really smart players between Kobe and Nash and Gasol in particular. Those three guys are basketball savants and they're also all at the stage where they have nothing to prove individually, so all their efforts will go into trying to make this thing work.
That's the hope, anyway—that Kobe won't be out to prove that he, like a mid-30s MJ, can carry a team to a title; that he can subvert his own desire to chase down Kareem's scoring record as he attempts to match the big fella's ring total.
Because the only thing that strokes Kobe's ego more than scoring points and being the man is winning.
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