Can Kobe Bryant Still Be Lakers' Best Player for LA to Be Title-Worthy Team?

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Can Kobe Bryant Still Be Lakers' Best Player for LA to Be Title-Worthy Team?
USA TODAY Sports
Will it be Kobe Bryant or Dwight Howard who takes the reins next season?

For as long as he's donned purple and gold in the City of Angels, Kobe Bryant has been the unquestioned leader of the Los Angeles Lakers

However, those days may soon be coming to an end. 

Coming off an Achilles injury at the age of 35, Bryant will enter his 18th season in L.A. with speculation surrounding his ability to perform at the All-Star level fans have become accustomed to. 

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

As we've seen in the past, Bryant's pain threshold is enormous. Doubting his ability to return from such a crippling injury would be foolish. 

But remember, Bryant has been playing at a ridiculously high level for some time now, and as retirement approaches (via the Los Angeles Times), the Black Mamba must indoctrinate the team's next superstar to approach the game the way he has for the last 17 years. He can't do this alone. 

Enter Dwight Howard

With July 1 quickly approaching, the Lakers will need to throw the kitchen sink at Howard in an attempt to lure one of the game's most intimidating defensive presences back to Hollywood. 

The good news? Bryant recognizes that his best chance to capture that elusive sixth title is dependent on the Lakers re-signing Howard. 

According to Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times, Bryant recognizes Howard's value to the franchise, which he discussed in an interview with 710 ESPN Los Angeles: 

"Those guys are hard to find, they don't grow on trees. When you have someone like that with his talent level, you have to be able to keep him and lock him in with this franchise."

Howard is expected to talk with other teams, such as the Houston RocketsDallas Mavericks, and Atlanta Hawks (among others), before signing a four- or five-year deal.

"I've spoken to him maybe a couple of weeks ago, just to check in with him. I haven't spoken to him since. I know he's got a big decision to make and I'm sure he'll take the visits and talk to the players on the teams he's considering. We'll touch base a lot more."

If the Lakers are to make a legitimate title run as Bryant's last hurrah, Howard's presence will be imperative. 

Howard took a back seat to Bryant during his first season in L.A., and as we saw, the big man had a difficult time adjusting. 

While it would unrealistic to ask Bryant to flip roles with Howard, an ideal world would see Kobe and Dwight divide touches evenly, thus letting the Lakers offense settle into a comfortable equilibrium. 

Bryant would remain a reliable perimeter presence, but Howard would draw the attention of defenses with his strength and athleticism on the interior.  

And quite frankly, being the Lakers' best player doesn't mean Kobe needs to dominate in the scoring column. 

As we saw last season, Bryant is more than capable of adapting to a new role, and he did so when he deferred to help the offense flow. 

Bryant recorded double-digit assists 11 times last season, according to Basketball-Reference.com, with eight of those games resulting in wins. While Kobe did score 40 or more points in two of those games, those were the only two out of the 11 in which he topped 30 points. 

There's also the matter of the Lakers thriving with Howard in an offensive groove. 

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Last season, Howard scored 20 points or more in 27 games, per Basketball-Reference.com. Of those 27 games, the Lakers lost just seven. Put simply: When Howard is the fulcrum of the team's offense, positive results are rather common. 

While Kobe should by no means fade into the background—and based on his style of play there's no expectation that he will—it's clear that the Lakers need to implement a revised offensive scheme. 

Bryant's return from injury will test him both mentally and physically, and considering he likely won't return to peak form right away, the Lakers will need to look to the future and lean heavily on Dwight. 

Should he re-up with the Lakers, Howard will be the center of the team's future. However, with Bryant on the mend, there's no reason the Lakers can't speed up that process and make their prized big the focus of the team's immediate plans. 

Not only would it ease the heavy burden on Bryant's shoulders, but it would help give Howard a taste of what's to come. Based on examples of previous resiliency, we know Kobe is capable of being the Lakers' best player, just as he has been for his entire career.

It just so happens that circumstances may force Bryant into becoming not just a productive player but one who's willing to facilitate more than he has in the past. 

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