Kobe Bryant of the LA Lakers
Kobe Bryant suffered a horrific injury toward the conclusion of the 2012-13 season, which will make it difficult for him to eclipse Michael Jordan as the greatest player of all time.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am the same person who argued the two-time Finals MVP is not yet a top-five player in the history of basketball. Hence, Bryant still has to leapfrog a series of players before reaching Jordan.
That may be difficult, but not impossible.
There are a couple of obstacles that stand in the path of Bryant’s ascension, and we will look at the biggest ones. The Lakers’ all-time leading scorer must demonstrate his undisputed place as the league’s best on the way to his sixth and seventh titles to enter the discussion of G.O.A.T.
Thus, Bryant must also secure MVP trophies as well as NBA Finals trophies during the course of these would-be championship campaigns.
Now that the road to Jordan is set, we can have a look at the landmines that may trip up the Lakers superstar and prevent him for attaining these lofty achievements.
Kobe Bryant ruptured his Achilles tendon late in the 2012-13 campaign, which might affect his availability and effectiveness for the remainder of his playing days. The former league MVP has been remarkably healthy during his 17-year career, but the injury coupled with his age might conspire to slow him down.
Bryant will be 35 years old by the time the 2013-14 season tips off, and not even Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak can offer a definitive timetable for his return. In the event the five-time world champion misses time, it undoubtedly hurts his ability to compete for individual hardware.
Furthermore, Bryant’s absence from the lineup more than likely places the Lakers at the bottom of the standings. The 2012-13 campaign served as evidence that the Purple and Gold is not built to withstand injuries, and there is no reason to believe that is going to change going forward.
Simply put: Bryant cannot enhance his legacy from the sidelines.
Dwight Howard and Mitch Kupchak
The Los Angeles Lakers lost Dwight Howard to the Houston Rockets during the 2013 offseason in an unprecedented free-agent departure. After joining the Rockets, word leaked out that the big man left the Purple and Gold because of the team’s direction.
That was a slight tweak at the Laker front office. After Mike Brown was dismissed early in the 2012-13 season and the franchise needed a coach, Howard made it clear he wanted Phil Jackson on board because the latter had demonstrated the ability to put big men such as Shaquille O’Neal and Pau Gasol in successful positions.
The Lakers flirted with Jackson before famously changing course at the last minute and hiring Mike D’Antoni. With the future of the franchise possibly hinging on a coaching acquisition, the team opted to select the guy their superstar center least wanted on board.
This matters going forward because the Lakers plan on being major free-agency players in the 2014 offseason. Indeed, if the Purple and Gold cannot convince a superstar to remain, it is difficult to envision them signing an impact player outright.
With Kobe Bryant nearing the end of his career, he needs talent more than ever if he is going to compete for titles. However, the Howard saga might be a historical landmark for a franchise that has not landed a signature free agent since nabbing O’Neal in the summer of 1996.
As Jared Dubin of Grantland outlined, it is quite unlikely the Lakers will sign a big name in 2014. That means Bryant will have an extremely hard time competing for championships due to the aging roster and lack of incoming talent.
Head coach of the LA Lakers Mike D'Antoni
There is a sentiment that Mike D’Antoni is the wrong headman for the Los Angeles Lakers because of the basketball ideologies he shares. He favors an up-tempo style and plays his stars until their wheels fall off, which is in fact quite literal when applied to Kobe Bryant.
D’Antoni had Bryant play 45.6 minutes per game in the final seven games of the 2012-13 season. Although one cannot conclude the workload resulted in Bryant’s Achilles rupture, many believe that is in fact the case.
D’Antoni should consider emulating former Laker head coach Phil Jackson on this front. Jackson masterfully managed Bryant’s minutes to ensure he had something left in the tank by the time the postseason rolled around.
Since Jackson’s departure after the 2011 playoffs, Bryant’s postseason shooting has declined. He looked worn down during the 2012 playoffs and probably would have faced the same issue had he played against the San Antonio Spurs in the 2013 postseason.
D’Antoni has proven that he is willing to sacrifice the effectiveness and even at times the health of his players if it results in games being played in late April and perhaps even early May.
If Bryant is not playing at peak levels, the Lakers have no shot at the conference finals. A failure to reach the title round not only prevents Bryant from matching and eventually surpassing Michael Jordan, but it also creates a bigger gap between the players.
There is something to be said about the unwillingness of players to play with Kobe Bryant for whatever reason. Metta World Peace discussed the departure of Dwight Howard from the Los Angeles Lakers with Mark Medina and shared this incredibly intriguing nugget:
Dwight did have some flaws just like anybody. Everybody has flaws. But Dwight just wanted to be comfortable. He wasn’t comfortable [here]. But once that happened [with Bryant's comments about wanting to play another three years at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season], I knew Dwight wasn’t coming back. I knew he wasn’t going to come back.
World Peace intimated that Bryant made certain guys uncomfortable and that might prevent certain elite players from joining the Lakers in an effort to chase championships.
If superstars are unwilling to play with Bryant by choice, the Lakers will be hard pressed to build a title contender that will help enhance the two-time Finals MVP’s legacy. The superstar may well indeed block his own march toward immortality.
Bryant’s presence on the Lakers might discourage players from joining the team, which makes upgrading the roster quite difficult. In essence, it means the Purple and Gold will remain a marginal regular-season team and end up on the exterior of any championship battle.
According to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Lakers will try to sign LeBron James in the 2014 offseason if he opts out of his contract and becomes a free agent. The move would give the franchise a new savior and someone to potentially help Kobe Bryant reach the mountaintop once again.
The Lakers obviously benefit greatly from his acquisition, but Bryant not so much. Indeed, bringing James along to win a title with Bryant would serve to illustrate that Bryant is actually not on Michael Jordan’s level.
Whereas the former Chicago Bull was the undisputed king of the league during the last decade of his career, Bryant would be teaming up with the best player in the game to win titles. The title of greatest of all time means just that.
Bryant becomes disqualified from the conversation on some level if he has won multiple titles but has not been the best player every single time on those title teams.
It is worth noting that it is unlikely for James to leave the Miami Heat for the Lakers given that he already plays for a team with championship pedigree. And given his supremacy in the sport, that makes him an obstacle for Bryant because he will likely be a leading candidate for future MVP awards.
In addition, the Heat have flexed their muscles on their way to back-to-back titles and will be the Lakers’ biggest obstacle in their championship chase if they meet in the NBA Finals in Bryant’s last few years in the league.