Los Angeles Lakers Having Major Identity Crisis Without Kobe Bryant

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 26, 2013

There have been many twists and turns in the Los Angeles Lakers' path with Kobe Bryant at the wheel, but there was always a road for them to follow.

Now that its driver is gone, L.A. finds itself mindlessly wandering through basketball's abyss.

The present is foggy, with that same haze rendering all future forecasts useless. The man who led this proud franchise for the last two decades is lost and may never return.

Stop-gap solutions are just that—Band-Aids pressed down on gushing wounds. Despite a shared past as brilliant as anything this NBA generation has seen, Bryant and his Lakers no longer know what the present or future holds. No one does.


"Remarkably Predictable"

That's how ESPN LA's Ramona Shelburne described the Lakers during Bryant's tenure.

Outcomes changed. Supporting casts came and went. This pairing climbed the highest of the sport's highs and sank to its lowest of lows.

But the featured role belonged to Bryant. He's been the lead in this 18-year tango, dancing his way to championship bliss, unnerving mediocrity and every step in between.

That marquee spot still belongs to the Mamba, if for no other reason than the fact that L.A. ensured he'll remain the league's highest paid player for the next two seasons.

But does the 35-year-old still have the body to handle that prominent perch and all the responsibilities that it carries?

He's still some eight months removed from the torn Achilles that ended his 2012-13 campaign and cast an inescapable light on the on-court superhero's mortality.

He seemed to validate that larger-than-life status by feverishly working his way back to the hardwood. Any time a player of his age beats the back end of a return timetable, that's a remarkable accomplishment—just ask Steve Nash.

But this wasn't the same Bryant who fans remembered. His timing was off (.425/.188 shooting), his ball control uncharacteristically loose (5.7 turnovers). A man who used to drop jaws with his aerial exploits was now being celebrated just for making it to the rim...in practice:

The magic was gone. The invincible was suddenly vulnerable.

Then, the bottom dropped. Again. Just six games into his return, Bryant would be back on the injury report. A fracture in his left knee, which he somehow managed to play through for nearly an entire second half, has cast another cloak of uncertainty around his future.

So, what happens next? For the first time in a long time, Bryant and his Lakers don't have an answer to that question.

His days of All-NBA production could be permanently banished to the history books. The assassin who the basketball world has come to know over these past 18 years may never return. Father Time could notch yet another victory on his unblemished record.

Bryant has always been L.A.'s crutch. Now, the Lakers must find a way to be his source of support.


Limited Options

There is no quick-fix solution for these Lakers. A franchise that has always avoided pitfalls or quickly climbed out of the few that have arisen has tied its own hands.

L.A. can scour the trade market, but what chips does it hold to play?

Despite his All-Star past, two years of diminishing returns may have made Pau Gasol more valuable for his expiring $19.2 million contract than his talent. Nearly all of the Lakers' young pieces are just months away from hitting free agency; teams aren't going to give up much for a player they could sign outright over the summer.

Nothing short of retirement will take Steve Nash and the $9.7 million headed his way next season off L.A.'s hands. This franchise needs building blocks, so future draft picks cannot be sacrificed to prolong a mediocre present.

The Lakers will surely be looking for a big fish in this summer's free-agent waters, but where is the piece that unequivocally pushes them over the top?

There was no championship bubble for Bryant's latest injury to burst. This roster does not have the bodies to contend for a title, with or without a healthy Vino.

But his absence could be a bigger loss over the long term. Forget about the market and the business opportunities L.A. has to offer free agents. Bryant was the biggest recruiting tool this franchise had. He cannot help that pitch from the sideline.

"They don’t have a healthy Kobe to showcase to free agents they needed to impress in the league up to this summer’s frenzy," NBA.com's Sekou Smith wrote. "Anyone they try to lure to Los Angeles will have to show up and face the prospect of an ailing and fading Kobe as opposed to the league’s most feared performer."

History has shown that Bryant can play well with others. He helped raise three championship banners alongside Shaquille O'Neal before that relationship soured, and he added two more next to Gasol and Andrew Bynum.

But his approach is clearly not for everyone. The fact that he owns the Hollywood spotlight until he chooses to step out of it only further reduces the field of potential additions.

That still would not preclude L.A. from finding someone willing and able to take the torch out of Bryant's hands, but this injury could do just that. As long as championships are used as metrics of historical measurements, the prospect of winning a title will remain a key factor in free-agent decisions—at least the ones that should concern the Lakers.

Even if L.A. finds its way near the top of the stacked 2014 draft board, would an unproven rookie and an aging, injured Bryant really be enough to convince a prominent player that this team has a championship ceiling?

His injury cast a dark cloud over this franchise, but his eventual return won't bring back those sunny skies.


End of an Era

These things are never easy.

There are some uncomfortable admissions that must be made, neither of which have surfaced yet.

Bryant cannot take on a superstar's load that his body isn't able to handle. His drive and determination will never let him be just another player, but he has to realize there is only so much he can do.

The Lakers cannot ask him to be their savior. Not this time, not ever again. Even if they've already committed to paying him like one, they have to realize where he's at in his basketball life.

The curtain hasn't closed, but the fat lady is starting to clear her throat. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, nothing more than the final tracks of one of the most thrilling rides this generation has seen.

Bryant will return again. But it may be even harder to recognize him this time.

The Lakers must realize what they have and react accordingly. Lateral movement does nothing to change this team's destiny.

All thoughts must be focused on the future. Any efforts to improve that future have to be made.

Bryant has a few years of torch bearing left, but that light will never burn as bright as it used to. L.A. needs to find someone capable of grabbing the reins, even if it puts the team's current star even further away from the storybook ending he had envisioned.

After years of following in his footsteps, it's time this franchise starts thinking about life after Kobe.

A life that seems to be starting a lot sooner than anyone could have imagined.


*Salary information used courtesy of ShamSports.com.


    Report: Spurs to Offer Kawhi Supermax

    NBA logo

    Report: Spurs to Offer Kawhi Supermax

    Scott Polacek
    via Bleacher Report

    Boogie Wants Max Contract 👀

    NBA logo

    Boogie Wants Max Contract 👀

    Rob Goldberg
    via Bleacher Report

    Stabilization Has Finally Come for Lakers

    Los Angeles Lakers logo
    Los Angeles Lakers

    Stabilization Has Finally Come for Lakers

    Matt John
    via Basketballinsiders

    Which Approach Should the Lakers Follow?

    Los Angeles Lakers logo
    Los Angeles Lakers

    Which Approach Should the Lakers Follow?

    Lake Show Life
    via Lake Show Life