Kobe Bryant is still elite, though his Lakers have fallen on hard times.
Barring injury, Kobe Bryant could play at an elite level for at least two or three more seasons. In fact, he could easily play until he is 40 and still be capable of averaging 20-plus points per game.
The bigger question is this: will the Black Mamba hang up his sneakers after next season when his contract expires? Or, will he re-up with the Lakers for another year or two with the hopes of getting a sixth or seventh championship ring?
It's hard to know what's going through Bryant's mind as he sees his team's hopes for winning an NBA title this season all but dashed. Coaching changes, injuries to star players, acrimony among teammates and a decidedly lackadaisical team demeanor all seem to point to a lost year for the Black Mamba.
From an individual standpoint, Kobe Bryant is enjoying one of the best overall seasons of his 17 years in the NBA. His game this year has transcended elite status. It's been more celestial, even otherworldly at times.
Even for those Kobe watchers who saw him score 81 (against Toronto in 2006) in a game or make one remarkable game-winning shot after another, it is still stunning to witness Bryant's aggressive and efficient play that's been on display this season.
Anyone watching Bryant just this past week saw a player who continues to play at an extremely high level. The Lakers lost to the Sixers, Clippers and Nuggets, but Kobe was not the culprit. His passing, rebounding and scoring kept L.A. in all three games; it just wasn't enough.
And Tuesday night, against the Rockets, Bryant spent the better part of three quarters playing facilitator to a very young, inexperienced group who were filling in for the injured Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill. He totaled seven assists, three steals and five rebounds to go along with his 20 points in yet another loss for the struggling Lakers.
Kobe Bryant will turn 35 in August and come to training camp next fall with just one season left on a contract that will pay him $30.45 million in 2013-14. Management would be wise to try and secure Bryant to a contract extension before the year begins, although they may be thinking about pursuing LeBron James, who can opt out of his contract with the Miami Heat and become a free agent in 2014.
Conventional wisdom says that Kobe Bryant and Lakers management will make a decision on the Mamba's future with the team over the course of this coming summer. Should L.A. win the title this season, and that seems highly unlikely, Kobe would have six championships and may think that retirement in 2014 is the right time.
How much longer can Kobe Bryant maintain elite status?
But, there is a drive in Kobe Bryant that you rarely see with most professional athletes. He has a passion for competing that may make it difficult for him to leave the game next year.
There is no reason to believe that number 24 cannot continue at an elite level for several more years. He trains and works as hard as anyone in the league and still has that elite athleticism, though he is a step or two slower than in his prime.
What translates well for Kobe Bryant is his general court presence and awareness. That will not diminish in the next few years.
Kobe Bryant prides himself on his conditioning and rarely falls to injury. A special knee procedure he had done in 2011 in Germany may have also helped add some bounce and jump to his step.
Michael Jordan finished his last year with the Bulls at age 35 and averaged an impressive 28.7 points on 47 percent shooting. He then retired but came back in 2001 and played two more years with Washington, both of which were less than elite seasons.
Whether he will admit it or not, Kobe Bryant has been chasing Jordan's legacy for years. When he retires, though, it will be for good.
Expect to see the Black Mamba playing at a high level, an elite level, for another two or three years. And when he does leave, it will be as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Kobe Bryant will go out as he came in; wearing the Purple and Gold.