Kobe Bryant has been chasing Michael Jordan—The Man, The Myth and The Legend—for more than 16 years now. Bryant has been compared to and measured against His Airness at nearly every turn, from his entry into the NBA as a precocious teenager out of Philadelphia, his first three-peat with the Los Angeles Lakers and to his more recent pursuits of glory on his own terms.
Not by accident, either. They're of similar size, play(ed) the same position, sport(ed) nearly identical playing styles and have dominated the game from the wing with a competitive fire rarely seen on the hardwood.
With one more lifting of the Larry O'Brien Trophy, Kobe will match Jordan's total of six championship rings. His odds of doing so are as strong as ever, now that the Lakers are back among the league's elite with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in tow. Even Kobe has said that these Lakers are the most talented bunch he's ever been around (via CBSLA.com), more so than the Shaquille O'Neal-centric outfit that went back-to-back-to-back in the early 2000s.
He's also been quite vocal about his impending retirement. He may well hang 'em up for good once his current contract with the Lakers comes due in 2014 (via Ken Berger of CBSSports.com). On paper, that should be enough time to equal MJ's jewelry collection, given the cast of characters that Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak assembled this summer.
What are the odds, though, that Bryant does Jordan one better and rides off into the sunset with a seventh title on his Hall-of-Fame resume?
Two titles in two years is a tough task for anyone to pull off, even for a maniacal competitor like Kobe. He pulled that trick nearly three years ago, when he, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum topped the Orlando Magic and the Boston Celtics in consecutive NBA Finals.
But the landscape of the league has shifted rather dramatically since then. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh touched off a new era of superteam assemblage when they joined the Miami Heat in the summer of 2010.
In the two seasons since, the Lakers have failed to follow up their mini-dynasty with any success of consequence. Each year has ended with Kobe and company losing to the eventual Western Conference champions in the second round of the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Heat have risen to the top by way of a title in two Finals appearances, with the homegrown Oklahoma City Thunder stepping up as the league's most worthy challenger.
Not that the rest of the NBA has sat idly while their collection of 30 has dwindled to a duopoly. The New York Knicks, the Brooklyn Nets, the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Clippers, among others, have done their part to keep pace with the ever-escalating arms race at the top.
So, too, have the Lakers, as the acquisitions of Howard, Nash and Antawn Jamison would suggest. After attempting to win on the cheap for two years, management went back to the drawing board and determined it prudent to make the most of Kobe's penultimate years by going full-bore after the title, come hell or high tax bill.
That historical overhaul helped to pave a newer, more viable path to Ring No. 6 for Bryant, albeit one still riddled with perils and potholes.
But before Kobe can start thinking about equaling (much less exceeding) Jordan's haul, he must first concern himself with the task of turning his paper champs into a viable contending team.
There's the matter of Dwight's back, which according to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports, is finally fit enough to test in live game action. There's the issue of properly apportioning Nash's role in the backcourt, so he and Kobe can thrive next to one another and make each other's lives that much easier.
There's the annual assuagement of Gasol's concerns, the reigning-in of Metta World Peace's fiery temperament and the too-often-futile attempt to turn a bargain-bin-bunch-of-a-bench into a solid second unit.
Not to mention the team-wide challenge of installing (elements of) the Princeton offense.
Getting this whole operation up to snuff could take some time. There will be growing pains, ups and downs throughout the season, perhaps a clash of personalities and/or playing styles here and there, and, undoubtedly, a freakout or two amongst the media circus that will be following the Lakers every step of the way.
Heck, it took the Heatles the better part of two seasons to figure out how to win at the highest level with a trio whose talents weren't ideal complements. Then again, these Lakers should fit together more naturally than Miami's Big Three did, with a dominant defensive center, a multi-talented power forward, a pass-first point guard and a prodigious scorer on the wing.
Perhaps Kobe's hastily-assembled crew will come together as quickly as the Boston Celtics' "Big Three" did in 2007-08. With Kevin Garnett as the defensive anchor, Ray Allen as the designated shooter and Paul Pierce as the all-purpose scorer, the C's went on to win the title in their first year together, slaying the Bynum-less Lakers in the process.
Then again, those C's, while coming ever so close to winning two titles in three years, emerged with one, at least with Ray Allen still on the payroll. Close, but no Red Auerbach cigar.
Mind you, we've yet to truly bring the rest of the league into the equation for the Lakers of 2012-13 and beyond.
Any journey to the Finals will inevitably lead the Lakers through OKC at some point. Much has been made of how the Thunder "dominated" the Lakers in the second round of the playoffs this past spring, even though the Lakers lost late leads in Games 2 and 4 and came out on top in Game 3.
The Thunder, for the most part, stood pat this summer, banking on the continued growth of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka to carry the day. The Lakers have clearly done more than enough to put themselves on par with, if not slightly ahead of, the Thunder on paper. However, the disparity in youth, speed and athleticism, along with OKC's new-found seasoning, could still make unseating the best in the West a difficult endeavor.
Suppose the Lakers survive the onslaught in the Western Conference. Suppose LA's latest Fab Four fits together flawlessly and can't be stopped by the OKCs and the San Antonios and the Denvers of the basketball world.
There's still the not-so-small matter of overcoming the Heat. After all, they're the defending champs and should be better after figuring out how to align their superstars in a winning formation down the stretch last season. It wasn't until Bosh returned from an abdominal injury during the Eastern Conference Finals that Erik Spoelstra surmised the optimal small-ball configuration, with LeBron at the 4 and Bosh at the 5.
From then on, the Heat were a nearly unstoppable outfit. They won't have to worry about stuffing square pegs into round holes and feeding big minutes to Joel Anthony now that they've unlocked the secret to playing their Big Three together.
Allen's addition to the bench makes Miami that much tougher to beat, as his three-point shooting will force opposing defenses to pick poisons like never before.
It helps the Heat's case, too, that they'll be head-and-shoulders above the rest of the East this season. There shouldn't be any need to fight for playoff positioning as in years past. Without any clear challengers, their road to the NBA Finals figures to be as clear as ever.
Kobe and the Lakers can't count on such smooth sailing on their voyage to the Finals, and certainly not once they get there. How might LA's bigger, more traditional lineup fare against Miami's fast-paced, unconventional style? Will the Lakers' older legs keep up? Is it possible that pairing two bigs like Dwight and Pau will put the Purple and Gold at a disadvantage?
These are a few questions with which the Lakers would be confronted in a Finals For the Ages.
If somehow the Lakers triumph, they'd have to do it all over again in relatively short order to put Kobe ahead of MJ and on par with Robert Horry, Frank Ramsey and Jim Loscutoff in the Seven Rings Club.
That's a tall order by just about any measure, especially with the league as competitive as it is today and with Dwight's status as a Laker beyond this season still somewhat in doubt.
Bryant's ability to top His Airness will likely come down to the extent he prolongs his farewell tour. Simply put, the longer Kobe plays, the more opportunities he'll have to win and, in turn, the greater the odds of him surpassing MJ will be.
How many rings will Kobe retire with?
Bryant has mentioned the idea of retiring after his one-year stint as a $30-million man in 2013-14, though he's hardly ruled out playing on into his late 30s (via Melissa Rohlin of the Los Angeles Times). And as much as Kobe says he won't hang around the NBA if he can't still compete at an elite level (via Ken Berger of CBSSports.com), he'd hardly be the first all-time great athlete to hang on "too long."
Part of what makes a superstar like Kobe so successful and so relentless is an ego brimming with confidence, often irrationally so.
Brett Favre hung around the NFL, albeit to an uneven effect. In 2003-04, Kobe shared a locker room with two future Hall of Famers—Karl Malone and Gary Payton—who were chasing rings like they were Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee incarnate.
And, of course, who could forget Michael Jordan's ill-fated comeback with the Washington Wizards?
The great ones aren't immune to delusions of grandeur. If anything, they're more susceptible to them.
Not that the thought of catching MJ's ghost would suggest that Kobe is at all delusional. If anything, playing beyond his 18th season would allow Kobe to pursue Michael's historic marks with all the more vim and vigor.
And, in the same vein, boost Kobe's chances of besting Michael's numbers, titles included.