Make no mistake, Mitch Kupchak, and the rest of the front office, is still attempting to position Los Angeles for life after the Black Mamba. They won't watch Kobe ride off into the California sunset a few years from now in a panicked stupor. A plan will have been hatched and put into motion.
Until that day comes, the Lakers are still Kobe's team. If there were ever any doubts about that before, they were extinguished on the heels of a report by ESPN's Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne. The two posited that Dwight Howard asked the Lakers to sever ties with Kobe beyond next season, and they weren't having it.
Seventeen years into his NBA career, Kobe is still the man in Tinseltown. The Lakers would never move forward without him in mind, and this offseason has proved to be no exception.
Howard is now a member of the Houston Rockets, Earl Clark joined the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Lakers paid Metta World Peace to leave. None of that sits will with the ever-competitive Kobe, whose first and only inclination was to keep the team intact as much as possible, and make a run next season.
Los Angeles went ahead and amnestied World Peace anyway, leaving the still recuperating Kobe to battle next season alongside a ream of odds and ends, many of which are misfits or perennial rejects.
Chris Kaman accepted a pay cut like it was 2009, and the Lakers were gearing up for another dynasty run.
Kaman will get the Lakers mini midlevel exception, Im told— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) July 8, 2013
Nick Young took his volume-shooting talents to Hollywood at a steep discount to play for the team he always dreamt of suiting up for.
Speaking @NickSwagyPYoung, Bartelstein calls Lakers "team he always dreamed of playing for"— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 11, 2013
Familiar faces Familiar places? Chemistry is always the most important thing on any team in any sport or business #lakerpuzzle— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) July 10, 2013
Standing idly by, watching as the Lakers sign a handful of leftovers may equate to tanking in Kobe's eyes. Given how fiercely competitive he is, it's not a stretch to believe he's a bit put off by the current roster, for reasons other than that Young will cut into his nightly shot attempts.
And to be fair, this is the closest the Lakers will ever come to tanking. Stringing together a band of one-year fill-ins isn't Hollywood. Temporary stopgaps are foreign concepts in a land where anything less than a championship is considered a failure.
That said, the Lakers are not purposely diminishing their ability to compete. They're not the Milwaukee Bucks.
Say what you will about Kaman, Young and the like, but they're not on-court degenerates. These guys can play.
Kaman is a former All-Star who fits into Mike D'Antoni's system better than Howard ever did, and Young, well, he can score like Jamal Crawford or Brandon Jennings. (He's also about as accurate as them too, which is part of the problem.)
Snagging a playoff berth with the Lakers' current collection of players is possible. Remember, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash aren't going anywhere (that we know of).
Can the Lakers make the playoffs with that roster? If they're healthy, I think 45-37 and the 7 or 8 seed is doable.— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) July 14, 2013
For Kobe, that may not be enough.
There is no championship to be won in Los Angeles next season, a harrowing notion that will likely cut Kobe to his very core.
He doesn't get up in the morning, grimace through rehab and attempt to defy the laws of age for a lower-seeded playoff appearance. Titles are all he cares about, and this season, which may not end with a sixth ring, will be torture for the Mamba.
Just know that what the Lakers are currently doing is for you, Kobe. It's for them too, for when you leave. But it's also for you, in hopes of getting you that sixth championship.
Beyond next season, Los Angeles has only Steve Nash on its books for a shade over $9 million. When all is said and done after cap holds, draft picks and any other CBA-invoked nuances, the Lakers will have close to $50 million to burn through next summer.
By now, all of us know what the Lakers plan to do with that stack of cash—spend it, preferably on LeBron James. If that doesn't work out, Los Angeles always has Carmelo Anthony or Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or a slew of other stars to fall back on.
Contingency plans never sounded so good.
With what will be unprecedented cap flexibility in the City of Angels, the Lakers will go out and seek a superstar partner for Kobe to play next to.
That, of course, is assuming he doesn't retire. Which he won't. Despite self-conflicting predictions, the Mamba isn't going anywhere for the next few years at least.
Whomever the Lakers decide to chase, then, will be with him in mind. They will look to find that special someone Dwight Howard was supposed to be. Maybe even special someones.
Kobe, too, will be a free agent, and though he says he won't take a pay cut to make room for LeBron or anyone else, I don't believe that for a second.
Fresh off a season like the one he's headed for, and may even be dreading, he'll seek refuge in that sixth title chase, and possibly in a seventh and eighth as well.
Depending on who's willing to do what Howard couldn't, and commit to Los Angeles, Kobe will adjust his monetary expectations accordingly, in the name of winning.
Will Kobe's future with the Lakers be better or worse off for persevering through this coming season?
Right now, Kobe may not see the light at the end of a tunnel. The prospect of not just losing, but the absence of legitimate contention, will consume him like an addiction.
Winning is his drug, and to endure a season where he won't even be expected to contend, is forced rehab, a cold-turkey cleanse that will drive him mad.
But it's all a necessary voyage he and the rest of the organization must sail.
To put the franchise in a situation to win in excess again, to make the most of what's left of Kobe's career, the Lakers must withstand a year of uncertainty. They must subject themselves to the kind of conditions that have become taboo within the Staples Center, all the while thinking of Kobe.
This is for him just as much as it is for them, even if it doesn't always seem like it. The Lakers are willing to step out of their skin and give this already fecund marriage something more to live for later on.
They want to give Kobe a future that is defined by everything this one season won't be.