Kobe Bryant's name generates an immediate feeling of admiration on the part of most basketball fans. It's synonymous with greatness, championships and that purple and gold jersey that we've gotten so used to seeing dominate over the past decade-plus.
When Kobe inevitably retires in the near future—perhaps after the 2013-14 season, perhaps later—he'll do so as one of the top 10 players to ever put on an NBA uniform. He'll be able to kick back and look at those five rings on his fingers knowing that he was an integral part of earning each and every piece of jewelry.
Kobe's career has been filled with plenty of champagne, endless accolades and gaudy statistics. There's no denying that.
And yet, he's not done building his legacy. Truth be told, no player is finished shaping how he'll be remembered until he finally pulls the plug on his career and retires. Legacies are fluid, intangible beasts, created when a player first strides across the stage to shake David Stern's hand. They change constantly, and, to quote The Wire's Lester Freamon, "all the pieces matter."
Ever since he was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets and subsequently traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe has been crafting an indelible legacy. As his career has progressed, it's one that has taken on three major elements.
The first deals with the Mamba himself and his status as one of the greatest players of all time. This part of his legacy is secure. Even if Kobe retired as you're reading this article, he'd be a lock for the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
Most people are starting to agree that the shooting guard is part of the elite group of players in the discussion for a historical top-10 spot, and even those who don't believe so tend to place him in the all-time top 20.
Part two involves a certain man named Michael Jordan, and that's where we enter some fairly dangerous territory. It's always tough to compare anyone to the greatest basketball player of all time, but Kobe has just about forced that comparison after years of emulating Jordan and attempting to match his accomplishments.
Just like everyone else, Kobe falls short. That statement is not meant to be disrespectful, just factual.
The individual dominance argument is one thing, and last I checked, five was less than six.
If I just look at the last 15 years, he's probably been the most consistent, most dominant player that we've had as far as 15 years all together. He's won four titles, multiple All Stars, MVP, and so on and so on.
I think he doesn't get a lot of recognition because he's not flashy like a lot of guys are. He's not jumping over people and high‑flying and doing the things that attracts people to the game. But I think true basketball, true IQ people, players know how great he is. What else can you say?
The player in question, one James identifies only through the use of pronouns, is Tim Duncan. And it's true: Duncan has wrested away the title that Kobe once held on to. That will remain true even if the Miami Heat destroy the San Antonio Spurs in the 2013 NBA Finals.
Again, that's not meant to be an insult levied in Kobe's direction. Finishing in second is nothing to be embarrassed about when competing against The Big Fundamental.
More than anything else, this is the part of Kobe's legacy that Dwight could help change.
What a Successful Season Would Do
Just for the sake of argument, let's say that D12 spurns the other suitors and remains put in Tinseltown, playing out the next few years of his career in a Lakers jersey. Health is another necessary assumption, and that applies to Dwight, Kobe's Achilles and the L.A. roster in general.
If Kobe quickly regains his old form and the lack of interference from the injury imp allows chemistry to build, this Lakers squad could resemble something like the juggernaut we thought it would become when Howard and Steve Nash first came aboard.
After all, the Lakers went 28-12 over the final 40 games of the 2012-13 campaign. If you prorate that to a full 82-game season, that's the equivalent of a 57-25 record, one that would have left L.A. tied with the Denver Nuggets for the No. 3 seed in the brutally tough Western Conference.
Dwight returning to L.A. and Kobe returning to health would likely lead to a successful season. Let's really shoot for the stars and say that the Lakers manage to dethrone the San Antonio Spurs/Miami Heat and become NBA champions.
That sixth ring completely solidifies Kobe's legacy. It gives him the coveted title that matches Michael Jordan, something he's been striving toward as the ultimate goal for a while now, and it has the potential to re-establish him as the best player of his generation.
If Kobe can engineer another title run, especially coming off a ruptured Achilles, that's just as impressive as Duncan's freakish consistency over the course of his career.
A fifth championship is a special accomplishment. There's no doubt about that. But a sixth championship, to borrow a line from a discussion with B/R's Ethan Norof, would put Kobe in a different stratosphere.
Twenty-five players in NBA history have won enough titles to fill up their entire hand with rings, and that number could grow if the Spurs emerge victoriously from the finals. When you up the criterion to six championships, the number dwindles to just 13.
Excluding the litany of Boston Celtics with at least six titles from the '50s and '60s, the list includes just Robert Horry (who had what most would agree was a strange career), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Talk about rarefied air.
As anyone who has climbed mountains could tell you, the higher you get, the harder it becomes to breathe. Winning each extra ring is a more strenuous task, and a sixth would do wonders for Bryant's legendary NBA legacy.
Why Dwight Is Necessary
Put plainly, none of the aforementioned hypotheticals are even remotely possible without the aid of one Mr. Dwight Howard.
At this stage of Kobe's career, he's no longer capable of carrying a team for a prolonged stretch of time. If that wasn't already true during the 2012-13 season, it will certainly be accurate during the ensuing one as the Mamba attempts to recover from his torn Achilles. That's a devastating injury, and it takes an inordinate amount of work to regain one's old form.
Kobe will be best suited to play the role of second fiddle, hard as that may be for him to accept, and few players are talented enough to take over the leading role and find success while doing so. Dwight is the only one of the them that the Lakers have any chance of acquiring.
Yet even that's not the primary reason why he's necessary.
If Dwight chooses to go somewhere else, say the Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks or Dallas Mavericks, the Lakers suddenly find themselves in deep trouble. They have $79 million committed before re-signing the big man, and that doesn't leave them with much financial flexibility.
In fact, L.A. can only acquire players this offseason in five ways: re-signing them, draft picks (Mitch Kupchak only has the No. 48 pick to work with), using the $3.1 mini-mid-level exception for taxpayers, through minimum salaries that can fill out a roster and via trades.
Other than the first option, which would be applied to Dwight, those aren't very appealing. If he chooses to leave behind the bright lights of Hollywood, the Lakers are in trouble. They'd be left finding a center in the bargain bin, and that's not a recipe for success.
Kobe's legacy is stellar no matter what, but it can only reach its full potential with one more excellent season. And without Dwight, there's little to no hope of a truly impressive campaign.
Lakers fans might not be too happy to hear this at the moment, but a lot rests on those massive shoulders.