Kobe Bryant's Final Act Will Determine His Legacy

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterJanuary 25, 2014

If the author Joseph Campbell were alive today, he'd probably have little trouble pinpointing where within the 17 stages of the hero's journey (i.e., the monomyth) Kobe Bryant currently resides.

You could say the rupturing of Bryant's left Achilles tendon was his "Apotheosis," the moment that seemed all but destined to destroy what remained of his NBA career after he'd already cemented himself as a legend. That would put Bryant in line for "The Ultimate Boon," the achievement of the goal that our hero originally set out to complete.

Clearly, defining that part of the narrative will be trickier than usual in Kobe's case. After all, Bryant didn't become an all-time great so that he could eventually work his way back from a devastating injury. Rather, his intention was (and still is) to be the best, to challenge the mythology of Michael Jordan while establishing his own bona fides as a towering figure in the history of basketball.

But Kobe's comeback, first from a torn Achilles and now from a broken bone in his left knee, has undoubtedly become a key component of his story as a heroic sports figure. As such, how he handles these next two-and-a-half years, until his recently signed extension has come and gone, could go a long way toward determining how he's remembered long after he's hung up his Nikes for good.


Safe and Sound

In all likelihood, Bryant's final years won't adversely affect the big picture of his Hall of Fame career in any negative way. Nobody can take away his five championships, his regular-season MVP, his two NBA Finals MVPs, his 16 All-Star appearances, his four All-Star Game MVPs, his 15 All-NBA and 12 All-Defensive selections, and his two Olympic gold medals. Nobody can wipe away his myriad memorable moments or even a single one of his 31,700 points scored.

Heck, Kobe could be patently awful from here one out, doing little to lead the Los Angeles Lakers out of the draft-lottery abyss, and he'd still be one of the 10 greatest players ever. 

If Michael Jordan's two-season stint with the Washington Wizards is any indication, the immortals of the sports world aren't judged by their twilights—not too harshly, anyway. Otherwise, we might obsess over His Airness' ill-conceived career moves (i.e., playing minor league baseball, un-retiring a second time to play for the Wizards, buying the Charlotte Bobcats) at the expense of our memory of his 13 magical seasons with the Chicago Bulls.

This isn't to say that those final years can't matter. Surely, if Jordan had succeeded in willing the Wizards to the playoffs while wearing their jersey, his time in D.C. might not have been seen as such a waste of time—or worse, an affront to MJ's own eternal brand.

Likewise, Bryant could use these waning years to polish off his impressive resume and ensure that he's remembered fondly by fans, "haters" and neutral observers alike when he calls it quits. He can be a hero all over again, even if his 35-year-old body forces him to work within the limits of mere mortality.

Especially if his body constrains him to mere mortality.


The Long Road Back

At this point, it might require an effort of Herculean proportions on Bryant's part to lift the Lakers within striking distance of the franchise's 17th title. L.A.'s present squad, whose record dropped to 16-28 after a 114-105 road loss to the Orlando Magic, won't likely be intact by the time the 2014-15 season rolls around. Only Bryant, Steve Nash, Robert Sacre and Nick Young are under contract beyond this spring; Young can re-enter the free-agent market this summer if he so chooses.

That could leave the Lakers with upward of $30 million in cap space come July 1, per ShamSports, assuming they renounce their rights to Pau Gasol, Steve Blake, Jordan Hill and the rest of the role players who populate the team's underwhelming roster at the moment.

Unfortunately, the upcoming pool of free agents might not feature anyone worth so pretty a penny. Assuming LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony all stay put, the Lakers will be left to parse through the likes of Luol Deng, Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph—the latter two of whom have player options for 2014-15—if they intend to acquire a player of All-Star-caliber consequence.  

To be sure, the Lakers might not need to pluck one out of free agency just yet.

If their campaign continues to careen out of control, they may well wind up with a plum pick in what's expected to be a loaded 2014 NBA draft. That, in turn, could yield a blue-chip prospect with All-Star potential, even more so if L.A.'s choice winds up within range to take one from among the top-tier group of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Marcus Smart, Dante Exum and Julius Randle.

With one of those youngsters in tow, the Lakers could begin to lay the foundation for the post-Kobe era while bolstering the club's prospects of success before Bryant retires. A newcomer of that caliber could be enough to intrigue a useful free agent or two enough to sign with the Lakers this summer and, perhaps, to draw an established star in 2015, when Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo and (who knows?) LeBron might all be up for grabs.


Must Have More Mamba

As fun and fanciful as all of this conjecture may be, none of it will amount to a competitive club unless Bryant's fit to pave the way. He'll be the leader, the focal point of L.A.'s efforts, for as long as he chooses to wear the purple and gold, regardless of the extent to which his skills atrophy. As he goes, so will go the Lakers.

This is partly why Kobe may not be immune to backlash from here on out after all. If he wants to helm the Lakers as he always has, he'll be called upon to do so at a level commensurate with the expectations that typically accompany this team and those tasked with its stewardship.

Such expectations will only be heightened by the two-year, $48.5 million extension on which Bryant will be operating after this season. Chances are, there will be those who care not that Bryant will be 36, with a body beset by the consequences of NBA wear and tear. Instead, they'll see a guy who's still taking home the most exorbitant salary in basketball.

That wouldn't be such a problem if the NBA's payroll structure were anything like MLB's. If not for the salary cap and luxury taxes, the Lakers, who were valued at $1.35 billion by Forbes this week, would have little trouble affording Kobe's contract while filling their locker room with a slew of pricey additions.

But those very machinations are integral parts of business in today's NBA and have only grown more central to the Association's operations under the current collective bargaining agreement. Now, if a team wants to spend, say, $100 million on player salaries, it'll have to do so knowing that 1) it won't have many avenues by which to re-jigger the roster and 2) there will be a massive tax bill to be paid at season's end.

The Lakers may be flush with cash and plenty profitable, but even they can't afford to flout the league's new financial rules.

All of which makes Bryant's massive take that much more consequential. By offering Kobe as much as they did—and by Bryant accepting that offer without any debate—the Lakers willingly limited the pool of cap space from which they'd be able to draw strength.

It's tough to imagine Bryant settling for a $10 million-per-year pact on par with those signed by Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett in recent years. But if the Lakers could've talked him down to, say, $16 or $17 million, they'd have had another $7 or $8 million per year to either throw at a star or lure some solid role players to L.A.

There's no changing the past, though. All the Lakers can do is hope that Kobe comes back healthy, plays well and does both long enough to justify at least a portion of the team's apparent overpay. If not, the Lakers figure to be seen as having undercut their own ability to quickly rebound from an abysmal season, with Kobe as one of the chief culprits.


Something to Remember Him By

Not that Lakers fans will go so far as to curse Kobe's name if the organization struggles to rebuild amid the constraints imposed by his new deal. They understand and appreciate what he's done for and meant to the Purple and Gold. A team-wide slump, even one as bad as that in which the Lakers are stuck at the moment, won't change that.

What it would do, though, is leave folks in L.A. with a less-than-pleasant taste in their mouths on the occasion of Bryant's retirement. This city is notorious for its fair-weather fandom; Angelenos will always show up to support a winner but are often quick to turn away from the gates when things go south.

Which, as the story goes, is to be expected in a town that's never short on great weather and other things to do.

Of course, Kobe's career doesn't have to end this way, and for all we know, it might not. He may call it quits before scoring ring No. 6, but that doesn't mean his final years will have been for naught. 

Quite the contrary, actually. He could help to set the stage for whatever successes are to come in L.A. His mere presence will be enough to pack the Staples Center most nights, regardless of his on-court efficacy.

The same goes for Bryant's ability to mentor the next Lakers icon, whomever that may be. So long as he's hanging around the locker room and participating in practices and games, Bryant will be a force for shaping the franchise's long-term future.

Like any great hero of monomyth, Kobe can impart upon his new teammates the many invaluable lessons gleaned from his incredible journey. Being a mentor and a figurehead on an entertaining and promising squad would be enough to ensure that Bryant goes out on a positive note.

Doing so on the heels of a protracted battle with Father Time and Mother Nature would only further foster that sentiment. After all, who doesn't like a story rife with redemption?

Surely, Kobe Bryant's is already one of the greatest tales the NBA has ever told. With a strong return, which could come before the All-Star break, Bryant may yet author an ending befitting the greatness that preceded it, ensuring that he leaves behind both his team and his own legacy in pristine condition.


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