Kobe Bryant only has a few years left to play at an elite level, which undoubtedly reduces the likelihood of him winning a sixth championship. The Los Angeles Lakers’ all-time leading scorer is currently recovering from a ruptured Achilles he suffered late in the 2012-13 season. The estimate is that he will be out for six to nine months.
An optimistic rehabilitation timetable has him joining the Lakers around the start of 2013-14 training camp. However, if Bryant requires more time for the tear to heal, his return might occur two months into the season.
Keep in mind, there is a possibility he could suffer setbacks. In addition, it’s fair to assume an adjustment of his game will be needed as he learns to cope with his perhaps slightly diminished physical attributes.
The Lakers struggled in the 2013 playoffs with Bryant absent. They lacked shooting, ball-handling and a player capable of creating shots for himself and others. If the superstar guard misses a significant portion of the 2013-14 campaign, it’s quite possible the Lakers will register more losses than victories.
Indeed, the roster itself is far from ideal. Steve Nash missed a large portion of the 2012-13 season with injuries, and the same is true for Pau Gasol.
As presently constructed, the Lakers are not built to withstand injuries.
Their bench is incredibly suspect. During the 2012-13 season, the second unit struggled to produce and give the starters adequate rest time. This is incredibly pertinent considering the team will not be free-agent players during the 2013 offseason.
Per Hoopsworld, if the Lakers bring back the exact same cast from 2012-13 sans Dwight Howard, Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark, they would have $84.2 million committed in player salaries for 2013-14. That figure puts them well over the luxury tax threshold.
Mind you, if the Lakers decide against extending qualifying offers to eligible players, magically convince Metta World Peace to opt out of his contract and fail to re-sign Howard, Jamison and Clark, they would be on the books for $68.1 million in 2013-14.
In other words, the Lakers will be over the salary cap until Bryant’s current contract expires. That makes adding talent to an old roster quite difficult.
It’s worth noting the Lakers project to have an abundance of cap room in the offseason of 2014. Steve Nash is the only player listed under contract past that point, which could allow the franchise to make a huge free-agent splash.
Granted, the Lakers must renounce every player on the roster, Bryant included, in order to free up the maximum amount of cap space possible. Taking this route means the Lakers will have roughly $50 million to spend.
However, that also means Bryant must re-sign at a far more reasonable and cheap rate when compared to the $30.5 million he will have earned for the 2013-14 season.
The more realistic approach involves Bryant remaining with the Lakers for roughly two seasons at somewhere between $15 and $20 million annually. This still gives the Lakers about $30 million in cap room to lure LeBron James.
But there’s a small problem with that: It seems unlikely for a then-29-year-old James to sign up and play on an aging Laker team in the summer of 2014.
Bryant will be 36 years old by the time the 2014-15 season tips off, while Nash will be 40.
The quality unrestricted free agents in the 2014 offseason are Andrew Bogut, Danny Granger, Dirk Nowtizki, Luol Deng and Pau Gasol. Although their ages vary, only Bogut, Nowitzki and Gasol would fit alongside a trio of Bryant, Nash and James.
And again, the Lakers need an impeccable presentation coupled possibly with a Michael Corleone-type of offer for James to sign for four or five years knowing full well that Bryant and Nash have roughly one or two seasons left in them before retiring.
It’s worth noting, there are players with contract options affording them the possibility of also hitting the open market. ESPN.com compiled a list including the names, which is available here.
Zach Randolph, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are the headliners. Mind you, signing with the Lakers in this scenario for any of them requires a substantial pay cut, which seems quite unlikely.
The other component in all this is Dwight Howard. The big man is a free agent heading into the 2013 offseason and can still re-sign with the Lakers despite the appearance of greener pastures.
In the event he remains in Lakerland, it forces the Lakers into a bit of a conundrum. Mitch Kupchak will have to severely lowball Bryant when negotiating his new contract for the sake of signing James.
With Howard making north of $20 million in 2014-15 and Nash making $9.7 million in the same season, this leaves the Lakers with roughly $30 million in cap room if they renounce all of their players.
In this scenario, Kupchak is left with that amount to sign James, re-sign Bryant and fill out the roster. In theory, this could work out. However, it hardly sounds realistic given the inability to build a balanced team after obtaining the signatures of both players.
Add it all up and the Lakers’ roster appears incredibly difficult to upgrade. Talent must surround Bryant if he is going to compete for another title, especially in the Western Conference.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have the horses and youth to own the conference for the next few seasons, while the Houston Rockets are not only up and coming, but they might land Howard in the 2013 offseason.
The San Antonio Spurs consistently perform during the regular season and recently exhibited their superiority by reaching the 2013 Finals. They may very well sit atop the conference standings for another two years.
The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers leapfrogged the Lakers in the Pacific division. Both teams have steady cores that should remain intact for the foreseeable future and consequently continue to outpace the Purple and Gold.
These factors explain why former Lakers coach Phil Jackson shared this thought with celebrated author and Laker historian Roland Lazenby:
When I pressed Lazenby on the odds of Bryant winning an elusive sixth ring, he had this to share on the matter:
"Fans are confident that Kobe will do everything that he can possibly do to be healthy by the start of the season. That part of the equation generates no doubt. And it never has.
"The doubt comes with this Lakers management/ownership's ability to put together a roster and coaching staff that makes that possible. On one hand, a high degree of confidence in Bryant. On the other, a low degree of confidence in the current Lakers leadership. Unfortunately, you need both."
As Bryant’s career heads towards its conclusion, there is a belief that he will not get the support system needed to tie Michael Jordan’s ring count. His greatness is evident and his career will forever be remembered.
Thus, as great as a sixth title would be, it’s not mandatory to solidify his legacy. Ultimately, that’s a good thing because that next ring might never come.
J.M. Poulard is a featured columnist that can be found on Twitter under the screen name @ShyneIV.