Kobe Bryant can't do it alone.
The Black Mamba has never won an NBA title without a star big man by his side, and while the debate about whether or not that fact tarnishes his legacy is best left for another day, the point here is that Bryant needs Pau Gasol to remain with the Los Angeles Lakers if he's to ever have a chance at another ring.
The relationship between Bryant and Gasol has always been contentious.
Last season, when head coach Mike D'Antoni was desperate to find a productive lineup, Gasol found himself on the bench down the stretch of a couple of December games. Instead of consoling his long-time teammate, Bryant basically ripped into Gasol for his failure to fight his way out of a tough spot, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN:
"Put your big-boy pants on. Just adjust. Just adjust. You can't whine about it. You can't complain about it."
But for all of the occasional sniping (almost all of which has come from Bryant and been directed toward Gasol), the pair have generally gotten along well and enjoyed substantial success. Even after Dwight Howard left the Lakers this past July, Bryant quickly posted an image of himself and Gasol on his Instagram account, as if to say, "looks like it's you and me again, buddy."
In the not-so-distant past, the Bryant-Gasol combo was enough to win a pair of NBA titles. But last year, the duo's on-court numbers weren't especially strong.
Over the course of the 2012-13 season, the Lakers actually posted a higher differential when Bryant and Howard shared the floor than when Bryant and Gasol did (per NBA.com).
But with all of the various system tweaks, lineup changes and injury issues last season, it's difficult to put full trust in some of the numbers. Remember, the Lakers were at their best when Bryant and Gasol got things going toward the end of the year.
There was the 86-84 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on April 5 in which Gasol put up 19 points and nine rebounds, and Bryant tossed in 24 points and nine boards of his own. The closing run in that game featured some of the vintage Bryant-Gasol two-man game that the Lakers had been missing all year.
And let's not forget the Lakers' 113-106 victory against the Portland Trail Blazers on April 10, in which Bryant erupted for 47 points, and Gasol tossed in 23 of his own. After that contest, Gasol cited the interplay between himself and Bryant as the key to L.A.'s excellent play. Per Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News, Gasol said:
“That’s been working for us really well. We have to stick it with it especially down the stretch. It’s pretty unstoppable.”
It's obvious that Bryant and Gasol work well together. What's not always so clear is whether Bryant truly appreciates his running mate. But whenever it looks like the Lakers are thinking about getting rid of Gasol (which seems to happen once every few months), Bryant is the first to cry out against any potential move.
Bryant wants Gasol around.
Just as importantly, Gasol appreciates Bryant's willingness to stick up for him. He was especially moved by Bryant's supportive Instagram photo following Howard's exit, telling Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times:
I appreciated it a lot, coming from him. We have a relationship, friendship and that showed how much he counts on me. I count on him, it was a great gesture from him. His support has been incredible. His loyalty and respect for me has been off the charts. I have the same amount of respect or more towards him. I appreciate that coming from him. It means a lot.
Gasol also told Pincus that he wants to stay in Los Angeles after his current contract expires at the end of the 2013-14 season.
Given the age of their core players and the uncertainty surrounding Bryant and Gasol, it seems crazy to talk about the Lakers beyond this season.
With both players set to be unrestricted free agents after this year—not to mention the injury issues Bryant (torn Achilles) and Gasol (surgery on both knees) are facing—there's no way to discuss the franchise's future in certain terms.
But just for a moment, if we imagine that Bryant and Gasol return to health and agree to take pay cuts to stay past the 2013-14 season, the Lakers' short-term future could look pretty bright.
L.A. could theoretically take another crack at one of the elite free agents on the 2014 market, and if the next big fish it reels in doesn't rock the boat as much as Howard did, there's a not-so-remote possibility that the Lakers could vault right back into championship contention.
Bryant doesn't love or respect very many players, but Gasol is one of them. L.A. needs to ensure that Gasol remains with the team going forward, if only to entice Bryant to stay committed.
Seeing as Gasol and Bryant have been through so much together, it'd be fitting that they stick around for one last ride—even if it's just off into the sunset.