Once upon time, Kobe Bryant was enough.
It didn't matter what the question was or if you liked him—his reputation said it all. He won championships, he won scoring titles and he secured All-Star selections.
With the 2014 free-agency extravaganza less than one year away, the Los Angeles Lakers can no longer count on the number of feathers in Kobe's cap to be enough. They plan to strike free-agency gold next summer, a wish that only comes true if they can afford to sell prospective targets on Kobe.
Anthony clawed his way to New York less than three years ago, and for some, the idea of him leaving this soon is impractical. On course to be pursued by Kobe's Lakers, the New York Daily News' Frank Isola writes otherwise:
The Knicks have between now and July 1 to prove to Anthony that they are building something resembling a contending team.
A person familiar with Anthony’s thinking says that Kobe Bryant could be the X-factor in the Knicks’ negotiations with Carmelo. The Lakers will have cap space next summer and if Bryant promises Anthony that together they can make a run at a championship in Los Angeles, Dolan may be doomed.
Anthony owns a home in Southern California and his wife, La La, has spent a lot of time in Hollywood the last two years making movies.
The possibility of Anthony burning New York in 2014 is very real. His quest for a title could lead him elsewhere if the Knicks aren't fit to contend.
This doesn't mean he'll sign with the Lakers, either. Their ability to give him what he wants lies within Kobe, just like everything else. That's how it's been for the last 17 years. That's how it's still going to be next summer.
We've just yet to figure out if Kobe is enough.
Is Kobe enough on his own?
The Black Mamba is underrated. Not as a shooter or overall scorer. Maybe as a passer and defender. Almost always as a winner.
Five titles haven't been enough for Kobe to escape the gallows of self-indulgence. For over a decade he's been branded as self-absorbed and nearly impossible to play alongside. He drove Shaquille O'Neal out of town after three championships, and Dwight Howard checked out on the Lakers before he ever really left.
Even those who have worked in "harmony" next to Kobe haven't been safe from his wrath. Pau Gasol, who has won two titles next to the Mamba, was told by a furious Kobe to put his "big-boy pants" last season, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles.
No one's is exempt from his temper. Not now, not ever.
But that rage is fueled by an inborn desire to win. And it has allowed Kobe to win. The first three titles don't come without Shaq, and the last two don't come without Gasol, but none of the five come without Kobe.
Put simply, those credentials on their own should be enough to reel in anyone who wants to win. Especially Anthony.
Few have garnered unrestrained praise from No. 24. Derek Fisher's name immediately springs to mind as someone who Kobe respects and cherishes; Anthony's another. On more than one occasion, Kobe has expressed a subtle desire, per Hoopsworld, to play with the forward and willingly indicated that they were friends.
"That's my guy," Kobe previously said of Anthony in an interview with Lakers Nation.
Their relationship should give the Lakers a recruiting edge in 2014. The problem is, those ties alone won't be enough.
Isola's argument for Anthony spurning New York for Los Angeles is founded upon a need to win, upon Kobe's ability to convince him they can win together. Three or four years ago, that may have done the trick. A year from now, when Kobe is pushing 36 and the Lakers play slave to the hope of restocking their superstar supply, it won't be.
This is all assuming Anthony wants to win, which isn't so much a shot in the dark as it is true.
"For me, it's all about having and being involved and being a part of a winning organization, a winning atmosphere," Anthony disclosed at Knicks Media Day, according to CBS Sports' Ken Berger. "You've got to want to be a part of a winning situation."
There was a time where Kobe alone would have made for a winning organization; when he and Anthony could have won titles together without the help of a preeminent supporting cast.
But that was long ago, before 'Melo would turn 30 and Kobe 36. Before superteams began to rule with an iron fist.
Before Kobe, who played out of his mind in 2012-13, was barely enough to will the Lakers to a playoff berth next to teammates who were considered his peers.
How Kobe can be enough
Let's play the harbinger of doom for the Knicks.
Why would Anthony leave New York when he has all the power? Maybe he won't, but he could. It is possible. If he doesn't believe the Knicks have the pieces in place or the ability to get them, skipping town becomes a legitimate possibility.
At which point, Anthony isn't going to seek the shelter of a lone fading star. Other factors will come into play, such as the team's ability to add yet another star.
What people don't tend to realize is that the Lakers cannot lure in that star unless Kobe accepts a steep pay cut. A really, really steep pay cut.
Assuming a projected salary cap of $62.5 million in 2014-15 is correct, Los Angeles can pay Kobe roughly $5.3 million and still have enough to offer Anthony and another superstar, say LeBron James, max contracts.
Kobe has already said he won't take a pay cut, per Serena Winters of Lakers Nation, because he's not an idiot. Savvy business men don't diminish their market value before they must. He could command an annual salary of close to $32 million in his next contract if he wanted to, a figure I'll be damned if he actually does demand.
Pay cuts must be taken for superteams to pan out. Look at the Miami Heat. To make it work, LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all accepted less. Then look at the Knicks. Neither 'Melo nor Amar'e Stoudemire took less to join New York, and the underwhelming results speak for themselves.
To avoid a similar fate in Los Angeles, Kobe must take less; Kobe will take less. How much money he's willing to sacrifice, however, remains to be seen.
Signing at $5.3 million in 2014 will amount to a pay cut of approximately $25.2 million compared to what he's earning now, per Hoopsworld, or 82.6 percent. Just as it's hard to believe Kobe will ask for another max deal, it's equally unrealistic to hope he'll leave more than $25 million on the table.
In fact, it's worth pointing out that Kobe might not want to sign at the going rate it would take to land Anthony, and Anthony alone.
Factoring in Steve Nash, Robert Sacre and the necessary cap holds, $24.8 million is the most Kobe could take without preventing the Lakers from giving 'Melo a max deal.
Only now we're back to Kobe, Anthony, Nash and a bunch of odds and ends again. That won't be enough to take down a healthy Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers or Golden State Warriors team. That won't be enough to beat whatever franchise LeBron signs with.
Quite obviously, it won't be enough to land Anthony, either.
The hard truth
Forget about pretending like we know what will happen when Kobe returns from injury. He could return without missing a beat, or his body could wave the white flag in its war against Father Time. We don't know.
All we do know is that last season, Kobe played with a chip on his shoulder and averaged 27.3 points and six assists while shooting 46.3 percent from the floor per game. Next to Howard. And a limited Gasol. And Nash.
We also know that this inspiring performance, that this borderline-career year wasn't enough. Not like it used to be. That's not going to change as he continues to age and works his way back from injury.
Last year may be the standard, but the standard is no longer enough. Kobe alone is no longer enough.
Paired with Anthony and LeBron, or another star, he will be. Not one—both. Short of Anthony and another superstar in his prime taking a pay decrease of his own, the Lakers can only get both if Kobe concedes to the bigger picture.
At 36, he'll still be worth well more than the $5.3 million it would take to ensure this happens. This isn't about his monetary value, though, so much as it is his on-court value and off-court appeal.
"When that time comes, I'll deal with that," Anthony said of his impending free agency, via Berger.
During that same time, Kobe must come to terms with the player he is then, not the player he once was.
Stars won't mortgage it all to play with him and him alone. Nearly two decades later, it's the other way around. He must make the financial sacrifices necessary to win. Failure to understand this will leave him alone. Without Anthony, LeBron and anyone else the Lakers dreamed of acquiring.
Without that sixth championship.