One season can hardly make or break the career of an all-time great like Kobe Bryant, though the load he's borne for the Los Angeles Lakers of late would suggest otherwise. Aside from playing inconsistent and often inattentive (if not disinterested) defense, Kobe's done it all for the Lakers—knocking down shots from the perimeter, driving to the hoop, posting up, dishing to his teammates, crashing the boards, gambling for steals, and so on.
He's done it all while averaging well over 40 minutes per game on a body bereft with bumps and bruises, just to drag the languishing Lakers into the Western Conference playoffs as a No. 8 seed.
It's an insane burden for the vast majority of players to take on, much less for a 34-year-old, 17-year NBA veteran whose had to toe the line between what is and isn't acceptable in the world of sports medicine just to stay active.
Because, apparently, Mike D'Antoni isn't solely liable for foisting this responsibility upon him (via Mike Bresnahan of The Los Angeles Times):
I keep asking him, and he wants to do it. If he says he feels great and his legs aren't bothering him, then I've got to take his word for it. If he says, "I'm tired, but I want to play through," then that's different.
Nor is Kobe putting the responsibility for those wearying shenanigans on anybody's shoulders other than his own (via Mark Medina of The Los Angeles Daily News):
I’m not worried about the summer. What I’m trying to do is get us in the postseason where we start the f– over. You know how you play that really bad video game where you’re just really sucking it up and you want to hit the reset button?
So far, Kobe's hardly asked out, and for good reason. With Steve Nash sidelined by a hamstring injury and the team clinging to a one-game lead over the Utah Jazz (who own the tiebreaker with L.A.) in the race for eighth place, the Lakers need Kobe to do precisely what he's done recently to make sure that they play even once beyond their regular-season finale against the Houston Rockets on April 17th.
But is it worth it? Is it worth it for Kobe to push himself so hard, night after night, when the road ahead likely goes no further than the first round anyway?
Is it worth it for Kobe to wreck himself in service of salvaging a season that was all but lost the day Mike Brown's head hit the chopping block? Is it worth it for Bryant to rescue a fatally flawed (and injury-plagued) team from spending the rest of the spring at home? Is it worth it for Bryant to need to set a new Rose Garden opponent scoring record (47 points) just so his Lakers could squeak past a depleted Portland Trail Blazers squad that was starting four rookies for the first time in franchise history, as was the case on April 10th?
(Let that last bit sink in for a moment, because it's just as insane as it sounds, if not more so.)
The answers to those questions depend on how you view Bryant's overall legacy and the place of the 2012-13 campaign within that context.
On the one hand, the Mamba's done more than enough over the course of his illustrious career to cement his legacy as one of the 10 greatest players ever. Here's a quick rundown of the resume that backs up that lofty assertion:
Five NBA championships in seven trips to the NBA Finals
15 seasons ending in the playoffs (out of a previous 16)
Two NBA Finals MVPs
One regular-season MVP
15 All-Star Game appearances
Four All-Star MVPs
14 All-NBA selections (10 First Team)
12 All-Defensive selections (nine First Team)
Two scoring titles
Second-most points in a single game (81 vs. the Toronto Raptors)
Fourth all-time in scoring
Fifth all-time in free-throw attempts
Fifth all-time in field-goal attempts
12th all-time in minutes
Third all-time in playoff scoring
Fourth all-time in playoff games
Second all-time in playoff minutes
And, before it's all said and done, Kobe will likely finish third all-time in scoring—behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone, and just ahead of Michael Jordan—among the top 10 in regular-season minutes, and as the all-time leader in playoff points, minutes and games. Simply put, the guy's been prolific, and there's nothing about one subpar season toward the tail end of his career that can change that.
On the other hand, this particular season was and still is far from ordinary. The Lakers came into training camp with (largely justified) championship expectations after acquiring two marquee stars (Steve Nash and Dwight Howard) in one summer.
Kobe, for his part, didn't shy away from setting the bar so high. If anything, that was the same standard that Bryant had set for himself. More importantly, Kobe went out of his way to take full ownership of this team long before the season devolved into a months-long experiment in big-top absurdity:
It makes sense, then, that Bryant would seem that much more motivated than usual to carry his team to the promised land of the postseason. The prospect of his impending retirement likely plays a part, but so, too, does the fact that, fairly or unfairly, he'll ultimately be held accountable for what could go down as the most disappointing season in the history of professional sports.
Though, more fairly than unfairly, since he's the one who so eagerly stepped up, like an overexcited poker player who goes all in pre-flop, only to see the value of his cards dissolve on their way down the river. If you tell everyone it's your team and they play along, it's going to be your team, regardless of whether you want it to be or not in the end.
Bryant's time in the NBA has already been witness to many an unsightly blemish to his CV. There was the feud with Shaquille O'Neal that ended when Bryant essentially forced the Lakers to trade the Big Diesel to the Miami Heat, thereby sabotaging what could've been the NBA's second- or third-greatest dynasty. There were the complaints and trade demands during the down years, when Kobe reaped what he'd sewn in L.A. while Shaq romped to another title with Dwyane Wade. There were the unflattering things that Phil Jackson wrote about him in The Last Season and the similarly snide remarks Kobe made regarding some of his old teammates during the darkest of the pre-Pau Gasol days.
Not to mention Bryant's forgettable foray into the world of hip hop and the fact that he was essentially Shaq's super-duper sidekick during the Lakers' three-peat, which may or may not impact how history comes to view Kobe's counting accomplishments.
The point is, Bryant's had some bad looks in his time. Failing to lead to the playoffs a team featuring five other current or former All-Stars—despite pouring in upwards 27 points per game and setting a new career-high in assists per game (6.1) for himself—would have to fit in somewhere there. Surely, in the world of basketball hypotheticals and counterfactuals, the greats to whom Kobe is most often compared and against whom he's most frequently measured could've accomplished significantly more with this team in Bryant's place than the Mamba has.
Furthermore, the shame of this season for Kobe comes from what will likely be perceived through the lens of basketball history as a golden opportunity squandered. He still has his sights set on matching Michael Jordan with his sixth title, but another year gone means one fewer in which to potentially achieve that.
Considering how candid Kobe's been since the summer on the topic of retirement, it's entirely possible that the 2013-14 season will not only be the last on his current contract, but also his farewell tour through the NBA. That adds even more make-or-break pressure to what little time Bryant has allotted for himself in this league.
Pressure under which some of his teammates have wilted thus far.
Don't expect Kobe to approach those dwindling days from anything other than a purely positivist perspective, though. He's not playing to preserve his legacy or avoid the negative consequences that come with failure. If that were the case, he would've retired after the 2010-11 season, as Alex Rodriguez suggested he might've had Bryant not found the Fountain of Youth in Dusseldorf, Germany.
Rather, Kobe's playing to further his legacy, to build his proverbial chip stack rather than walk away from a cash game with his investment intact, whatever the consequences may be—physical, historical or otherwise. His ability to pull a team riddled by injuries, coaching and roster changes and turmoil at the top (among other things) to within striking distance of a playoff spot, however low on the totem pole, should only strengthen his reputation as one of the most relentless competitors to ever lace 'em up.
At the very least, Kobe's extraordinary efforts (in most areas, and frustrating efforts in others) have the Lakers outline their offseason priorities in pursuit of championship-caliber improvement. He plays at a staggeringly high level while reminding those around him that he can't sustain such a staggeringly high level of play.
Even though he has...for the better part of two decades.
So, would missing the playoffs for just the second time in 17 years stain Kobe's career? Perhaps, albeit as just one of many mishaps along the way.
Would it in any way redefine or reshape Kobe's legacy on the whole? Absolutely not.
More importantly, does Kobe care about any of this? Tough to say, though if his postgame comments following the Lakers' 113-106 win over the Blazers are any indication, Bryant is far more concerned and consumed with winning right now than he is with contemplating the historical consequences of this most frustrating of seasons (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com):
You try to do everything. You don't look for excuses. You don't wait on anybody else to make rotations, you do it yourself and by doing that, it sets an example for everybody else to do the same thing. It's not to sit and wait on everybody else to be aggressive or to make plays. Everybody just go out there and do it as yourself and that's how you end up getting those good, collective wins.