Bryant is unquestionably one of the greatest players the franchise has ever seen, and he has helped the team raise five championship banners with his singular talent. However, the Lakers will need more than his elite skills going forward.
Bryant ruptured his Achilles late in the 2012-13 season, which forced him to miss the early portion of the 2013-14 campaign. He rejoined his teammates in December and played six games, but then fractured the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee per Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.
As a result, the former league MVP is at risk of missing the balance of the season. Still, there are things Bryant can bring to the table regardless of the fact he’s apparently handcuffed the franchise with his $48.5 million extension.
The Lake Show initially wanted to make a big free-agent splash this offseason, but Bryant’s contract complicates this scenario. The Lakers should have roughly $26 million in cap room if they renounce all of their expiring deals.
It's unlikely L.A. will sign a superstar free agent this summer. Such a player would require a salary in the range of $20 million per season, leaving only $6 million to complete the roster. The summer of 2015, with a more attractive free-agent class, would probably provide a better target.
Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com hinted as much:
The Lakers? They are aware of the difference in the free-agent choices, and that's why it has been reported by several outlets that the Lakers might sit out much of the 2014 market and wait until 2015, when they'll have more money to spend and the pool of talent in free agency will be much deeper.
In the event general manager Mitch Kupchak sits on the sidelines this offseason, it means Los Angeles will be rebuilding during the course of the 2014-15 season.
Granted, with a top-five draft selection, the Lakers might change course and go after a stud player this summer.
However, the 2015 offseason offers far too many top-flight players for the Purple and Gold to potentially waste their cap space this summer.
In the event the Lakers sign players to short-term contracts with 2015 in mind, it means Bryant will be the best player on a team that is not actually looking to compete for a playoff berth or a title.
What can the five-time champion bring to the table in this setting?
Kobe Bryant the Mentor
Bryant’s talent and experience make him perhaps the perfect elder statesmen for the Lakers.
Throughout his 18-year career, the two-time Finals MVP has seen it all. Bryant has performed on the biggest stage, but he has also failed with the title on the line on a few occasions.
Those moments have helped harden Bryant, and he has developed incredibly thick skin as a result. This was never more apparent than during the 2012 playoffs, when Bryant shared this nugget with Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:
Because I don’t play for your [expletive] approval. I play for my own love and enjoyment of the game. And to win. That’s what I play for. Most of the time, when guys feel the pressure, they’re worried about what people might say about them. I don’t have that fear, and it enables me to forget bad plays and to take shots and play my game.
Where a faction of basketball fans might see this as bravado, a teammate could view it as the pinnacle of self-esteem. Bryant has reached a level of confidence at his craft that practically makes him eccentric.
Kobe Bean is better at his job than most people are at theirs, and the four-time All-Star Game MVP has no problem stating as much.
After spending all of the years practicing and training to become one of the best players in league history, one can understand why Bryant appears to be so defiant.
Bryant’s cachet in conjunction with his talent makes him a terrific prospective mentor for younger players and athletes unfamiliar with Lakers customs. Provided that the future Hall of Famer has the patience, he can teach guys what it means to be a true professional.
Bryant came into the league at 17 years old, and he barely looked like the finished product he is today. The man known as the Black Mamba had two facets to his game: great ball-handling and jaw-dropping athleticism.
He refined his game through the years and added a jump shot, post-up game as well as a smarter approach to attacking defenses. Bryant’s rigorous training regimen has allowed him to become a legend, and his habits have influenced others as well.
During the 2008-09 season, Bill Simmons responded to a reader question over at ESPN.com with respect to how Bryant changed LeBron James’ focus during the 2008 Olympics:
Q: Should Kobe win the MVP for spending the summer turning Lebron into the best player in the NBA?
-- Michael, Inglewood, Calif.
SG: Definitely add it to his résumé. The biggest moment of the 2008-09 season happened three months before the season: The time LeBron overheard Kobe saying something to the effect of, "I can't, I'm working out tomorrow at 6 a.m.," followed by LeBron going, "Hmmmmmm ... if he's working that hard all the time, maybe I should start working that hard?" And the rest was history.
It seems evident that Bryant’s mere presence and work ethic can be considered tools on their own given the multiple layers (learning to play with diminished athleticism and centering his game around his jumper) his repertoire has accumulated over the years.
These additions speak to his ability to teach himself the game, and perhaps he can do as much for his teammates during the Lakers’ rebuilding portion of his career.
For instance, Bryant could certainly offer more tutelage to Nick Young. Bryant helped out Young with his defense earlier in the season, and based on comments Young shared with Mike Bresnahan of the L.A. Times, he welcomed the aid: "That's what I've been working on. Been talking to Coach about it, Kobe's been helping me out with it. Just learning, getting older, finding out how to do everything out there on the court."
Young is a talented 2-guard who loves to get shots up. However, he sacrifices quality for the sake of quantity, and it’s affected his marksmanship. Indeed, Young is a career 42.6 percent field-goal shooter.
Bryant could offer additional knowledge by teaching Young and other teammates the intricacies involved with conquering defenses and turn them into more efficient players.
This is one way of ensuring the Lakers remain competitive despite a flawed roster. Also, Bryant’s willingness to assist players will go a long way toward bringing in new talent in the 2015 offseason.
Bryant’s reputation suggests that he is less than willing to accommodate those who share the floor with him according to Henry Abbott of ESPN.com’s TrueHoop blog, which could easily discourage free agents from joining the Lakers.
However, a shift on this front might suffice in changing the narrative and getting players to sign on with L.A. and share the spotlight.
No Overstaying Welcome
The moment Bryant’s contract expires at the conclusion of the 2015-16 season, the 2-guard must retire.
The Lakers already gave him a lifetime achievement award by signing him to a $48.5 million deal despite the fact he was injured at the time. The franchise has been good to him, and vice versa.
This isn’t to suggest that Bryant does not deserve every penny on his contract, but rather that the dollar figures will greatly exceed his production. Consequently, Bryant has to ride into the sunset in the 2016 summer.
The future Hall of Famer cannot hold the franchise hostage with another commitment that eats up Los Angeles’ cap room. The Lakers need Bryant to gracefully bow out, which will allow them to transition into a new era, with a new crop of stars.
Bryant will be instrumental in making the Lakers a playoff contender once again, after the rebuilding phase with his on-court production and leadership. But his exit will also help L.A. completely move on from the huge shadow he casts over the franchise.
The time will come when Bryant will have to step aside and give the keys of the Lakers organization to another player. That event is set for 2016.
The Lakers need Bryant to become an ambassador of sorts during the rough patch the team is likely to face next season.
The Purple and Gold will be better served with Bryant offering mentorship to young players. It will help the Lakers get better as a whole and foster an environment that might attract prospective free agents when the Lakers want to reload in the 2015 summer.
Obviously, Bryant must continue to perform on the court and give the team whatever remaining production he has left in him.
Once Bryant’s exhausted his talent and knowledge at the end of his contract, it will be time for the 2-guard to walk away so that the Lakers can move on and usher in the new era.