Kobe Bryant remains one of the most polarizing figures in sports, because there is only the subtlest of difference in how his critics and proponents choose to define his driving force.
His supporters love him for what they understand to be an unrelenting will to win, while his detractors bash him for what they perceive as an unrelenting will to prove people wrong at any expense. Even if his team is the one footing the bill.
This is important to appreciate because Bryant's image will be at just as much of a crossroads next season as the Los Angeles Lakers' fate.
Should he come back from his recently suffered Achilles tendon injury with the dual intent of keeping the Lakers competitive and proving that no setback—regardless of the tender age he's currently at—is more overpowering than his will, both his image and the Lakers' future will suffer.
But should he have the presence of mind to let the Lakers tank, while he continues to proceed with his recovery from the sidelines, he will be exalted for letting the Lakers reap the kind of rewards that make patience the virtue that it is. For showing the kind of foresight that allowed Dr. Buss to pass away as a champion.
Therefore, if the Lakers hope to wash away the hideous aftertaste that was left after one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history, Kobe Bryant must, quite literally, step aside next season.
Don't expect it to be an easy task for him, though.
Kobe prides himself on being among the dying breed of NBA players who still embrace the importance of toughness and resilience in a sport that many of its predecessors believe has gone soft—both physically and mentally.
Whereas most NBA players today are more apt to sit out a regular season game, prioritizing the preservation of their health to the relatively low stakes of the contest, one gets the sense that Kobe feels as empowered by his injuries as a soldier would be by battle scars. That, because he is on his way out of the league, he can appreciate his legacy in a way that makes playing hurt more symbolic than debilitating.
Another reason that sitting out will be a challenge for Kobe is because of his fierce competitiveness. No sooner did he tear his Achilles tendon that his Twitter feed fell into a head-to-head battle with Stephen Curry, breakout star of the first round of the playoffs.
Gotta milk pau in the post right now and d12. Will get good looks from it
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) April 21, 2013
Needing an opportunity to help his team in some form or manner as they were being shellacked by the San Antonio Spurs, Kobe became a Twitter coach.
And when the pride of Laker nation was in need of a morale boost as the Spurs were putting the finishing touches on a blow-out elimination loss and Dwight Howard had gotten ejected, Kobe was there.
Needless to say, the concept of stepping aside simply isn't in Kobe's vocabulary.
More often than not, it is an option that he only agrees to begrudgingly.
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) April 22, 2013
But if history has proven anything, the Lakers are better when Kobe can adopt the principle that "less is more."
The Lakers season turned a tide last year when Kobe made it a priority to become a facilitator rather than a scoring option. Prior to that adjustment, much was made of the fact that the team won less when he carried much of the scoring burden.
As had become a signature of his game, many expected him to continue shooting, tapping into that stubborn resilience reservoir in his makeup. Instead, he took a step back, focusing more on other ways to help his team. That night, he pulled down 15 rebounds, which was the second-highest total in his then 14-year career.
In fact, it still remains true today.
And does it even bear repeating that when the three-time NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers were at their competitive apex, it was when a more impressionable Kobe had deferred to Shaquille O'Neal?
Many have argued for years on whether Kobe's unwillingness to take a backseat to Shaq was what ultimately led to the breakup of a potential Laker dynasty.
And, on a much smaller scale, many may soon wonder if it was the main impetus that led Dwight Howard to recently depart to the Houston Rockets. Certainly, it was a theory that gained credence earlier this week, based on a report via RealGM by ESPN's Marc Stein and Ramona Shelbourne.
Next summer can be the light at the end of the tunnel, though.
Assuming the Lakers abandon their road to mediocrity by giving the future a chance to finally outshine an aging present, they will be rewarded with a high lottery pick in a draft that has been as highly touted as any since 2003.
Sure, next summer will also feature an equally devastating free agency class, headlined by four-time MVP LeBron James, but there are no guarantees that anyone will sign.
Furthermore, if a lesson should have been learned this season, it is the importance of leaving oneself flexible to a series of options, as opposed to being pigeonholed to all-or-nothing scenarios. Just ask Laker coach Mike D'Antoni if you disagree.
But it all starts with Kobe.
For most of his career, his game was marveled at by the fact that he shares many of the same characteristics that made Michael Jordan the greatest of all time.
And there is no better way for him to begin to put an end to that career than by emulating the same characteristics that made Dr. Buss the greatest of all time as an owner.
Because Dr. Buss was a visionary.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!