There is no doubting the gravitational pull of Kobe Bryant. Wherever he goes, our eyeballs follow. Whatever he says, we listen. Few players in the league have ever commanded the level of respect, admiration and fear Bryant does from his peers. He's a global icon and a living legend.
And he's almost out of time.
Bryant knows this. Athletes on his level sometimes seem to be unaware of their own mortality, or at least unwilling to acknowledge it. Even last season before his torn Achilles and subsequent knee injuries, Bryant seemed to be cognizant of what was coming for him after he saw the Boston Celtics start to collectively break down. Here's what Bryant told ESPNBoston.com then:
"I'm not happy about what's happening to them," Bryant said. "We're all running out of time. So I understand."
Bryant is approaching the end of the line, and the long and arduous recovery process from injury has to be both frustrating and humbling. Really, it's something everyone faces at some point in their life: Suddenly you don't bounce back as quickly, and you lose some quickness, and you start to decline. It's only natural for a world-class athlete like Bryant, who was once at the peak of his profession, to go through that process. There was nowhere else to go but down.
That decline isn't just limited to what your body can and cannot do any longer. It affects everything.
One area where Bryant's injuries didn't have an impact, however, was his wallet. Bryant still has an incredible amount of sway within the Lakers organization, as evidenced by his two-year contract extension worth $48.5 million.
But that extension, for the most part, was based more on his past performance, almost like a reward for his services. It made plenty of business sense, of course, and you can justify paying him that amount because Kobe and the fans both deserve it. With that in mind, here's what Lakers owner Jim Buss told ESPN Los Angeles:
We made him the highest-paid player in the NBA because we felt like it was the right thing to do. This wasn’t about what somebody else would pay him or outbidding anyone for him. This was to continue his legacy [with the Lakers], our legacy of loyalty to our iconic players.
He doesn’t have to prove to us one thing. He’s proven everything to us over the last 17 years. We’ve seen what he’s done with broken fingers and torn ligaments. There’s no stopping the guy. We have 100 percent faith in him.
Will free agents in the next two offseasons have the same amount of faith in Bryant as the Lakers organization does?
Most likely not.
Simply put, the Lakers stand to gain more than they lose by letting Bryant finish out the last few years of his career in purple and gold no matter how infrequently or poorly he plays.
Incoming free agents, however, have to look out for themselves first and foremost. That requires looking at Bryant through a different, more objective lens.
These are the indisputable facts: Bryant is turning 36 this year. Next year will be his 19th season in the league. He's currently 13th in NBA history in total regular-season minutes played and second in playoff minutes played. Achilles injuries are one of the toughest for an NBA player to come back from.
No one questions Bryant's heart, but Father Time is undefeated. As he told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year, Bryant will try to stave that off now more than ever after the show of faith from the Lakers.
“It makes me want to run through a wall for them,” he said. “Kind of just adds more fuel to the fire. Prove to everybody that [the Lakers] are right and everybody else is wrong.”
Is Bryant still capable of proving the doubters wrong? Yes. That doesn't mean you should reasonably expect free agents to assume the true best-case scenario will take place, though.
Teaming up with Bryant at this point presents considerable risk, not only because of his mileage and injuries, but also because of the amount of cap space his salary occupies. The degree of difficulty in building a championship-quality roster is incredibly high, as Ben Golliver of SI.com summed up here:
This is ground zero, and Lakers management just tied one of its hands behind its back by forking over roughly 40 percent of the team’s salary cap room next season to Bryant. Perhaps the plan is to keep the band together by re-signing Pau Gasol at a steep discount and filling out the rotation by picking-and-choosing from this year’s players and free agents who are willing to play for less in L.A. That’s just not a title-contending approach.
The Mavericks have been in great position to recruit another star multiple times, offering max money and the chance to play alongside a legend for a winning franchise, but it never materialized. The Mavs have stayed competitive thanks to a strong infrastructure and the play of Nowitzki, but they aren't considered a true contender in the least bit.
That's not to say joining Bryant in Los Angeles won't come without plenty of advantages, and perhaps even more than what Dallas has been able to offer. After all, the Lakers are still one of the greatest organizations in sports located in one of the most desirable cities in the world. If a free agent wants to make max money, play in a huge media market and eventually be the primary star for one of the most storied franchises in the NBA, the Lakers can offer that.
Will the Lakers sign a max player this offseason?
But let's make one thing clear: That's the primary pull of joining the Lakers now. It's not to play with Bryant, but rather to enjoy the same spoils he has over the years.
If a free agent wants to join a championship-contending team right away this offseason, there will be better options than the Lakers. And if he wants to team up with a fellow superstar to build a long-lasting dynasty, there will be better partners than Bryant who can offer more longevity.
Again, it's only natural that a player's pull and influence will eventually lessen and coincide with what he can provide on the floor. Bryant has reached the point where it's plain for all to see that he's on the decline, just as everyone else before him has and everyone after him will. He's no longer the biggest reason for a free agent to come to Los Angeles, but he doesn't have to be, either.
It's a relatively new concept considering he's been a mainstay for nearly two decades, but there is life after Kobe. The Lakers have the means to attract a superstar, but playing with Bryant is no longer the selling point that will top the list.