I tried missing these guys a couple years ago, but they just kept turning out quality seasons. Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Paul Pierce, Steve Nash and Kevin Garnett seem to have no end point, which I'm happy about.
The new NBA is better for having "past-prime" brilliance. Kobe Bryant nearly led the league in scoring and Kevin Garnett could have easily won Defensive Player of the Year. Paul Pierce's best season may have been at age 33, and Steve Nash remains a 40-50-90 threat. Tim Duncan remains great, even after transcending two different eras (pre-zone and zone) of hoops.
In the end, the game will miss Kobe most. Even when when he's at his most annoying and irascible, Bryant commands the attention of the league. He's a self-made myth, an archetype that has even spawn its own, hilarious series of commercials.
Bryant is the idol of one the game's loudest, and possibly most passionate fanbases. Lakers supporters yell, "Five rings!" as though Kobe's accomplishment matters more than the team he won it for. There is an explanation for why and how this happened.
Back in the mid 2000's, the Lakers were adrift. Shaq had left for Miami, and the Lakers had thrown their lot in with the 25 year-old Bryant. With little talent surrounding Kobe, Los Angeles did not have anything to compete for.
From that rubble, Kobe gave Laker fans a cause. By scoring 81 points and putting together 50-point and 40-point win streaks, he gave his team relevance and meaning in the interim between title-contending years. In this way, Bryant subsumed the fanbase into his cult of personality. Even though the Lakes are much better today, he remains an almost religiously revered figure.
The zeal with which Kobe is celebrated can frustrate this writer on occasion—but I don't want to see it go away. Bryant fans are a dependable, enthusiastic bloc, always primed to make their case and decry the statistics that would vote against it.
They help foment an impassioned debate that surrounds Bryant, particularly regarding how his clutch reputation meshes with tangible stats. ESPN's Henry Abbott has attacked the mythology of Kobe clutch, but those who screech in opposition to the numbers are almost missing the point.
Regardless of what the statistics render, the true testament to Kobe's greatness is the fervor with which so many defend him (To be sure, he's also a statistically productive player, just not as much later in his career). There is something about the grace with which he plays, the idea of monomaniacal basketball focus that he embodies, and his famed bloodthirsty will for the ultimate prize.
The total package resonates with the public and will for years after he retires. But it's better right now. It's more fun to have Kobe in the league, telling Dwight Howard that this is Bryant's team. It's better to wonder whether Bryant will take the last shot amid a bounty of good options. And it's better to watch and participate in the argument regarding whether he should or shouldn't hoist that final three. The NBA will miss Kobe Bryant, hopefully later rather than sooner.