It was a sigh of relief Kobe Bryant had been holding in for five years.
After leading the Los Angeles Lakers to the 2009 NBA Championship over the Orlando Magic, Bryant silenced his doubters—for the moment, at least—by winning his first title without sidekick-turned-nemesis Shaquille O’Neal.
“It felt like a big, old monkey was off my back,” Bryant said after the Lakers’ 99-86 series-clinching win in Game Five over the Magic.
Bryant revealed he had grown tired of the criticism that he couldn’t win a championship without Shaq—traded from Los Angles to Miami in 2004—by his side. After missing the playoffs in 2005 and bowing out in the first round in 2006 and 2007, Bryant and the Lakers fueled the belief last year when they were handled in the Finals by the tougher, tighter Boston Celtics.
“It was like Chinese water torture—just keep dropping a drop of water on your temple. I would cringe every time,” Bryant said. “I was just like, ‘It’s a challenge I’m just going to have to accept, because there's no way I’m going to argue it.’”
But with a fourth championship, and one as the undisputed Laker leader, Bryant officially stepped out of O’Neal’s towering shadow while elevating his position among the NBA’s all-time greats.
However, before Bryant starts feeling too good about himself, he should realize he might only have one season left to cement his legacy as one of the best basketball players ever.
If Bryant wants his name forever associated with the likes of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, the 2009-10 NBA season could be his most important.
Crucial Season for Bryant, Lakers
Bryant will turn 31 this summer as he prepares for his 14th NBA season, as crazy as that sounds. While it might seem like he has several seasons left to play, Bryant probably has, at most, two “great” seasons left in him.
Bryant has already logged 948 regular-season games and 175 playoff games in his career, for a total of 1,123 games. In the last 20 months alone, he’s played two full NBA regular seasons (164 games), 44 playoff games, and been to China and back, leading The Redeem Team to Gold in the Beijing Olympic Games last summer.
That’s a ton of basketball for anyone, even Bryant, who Lakers coach Phil Jackson said looked tired at times during the Finals. How long Bryant can keep up his All-NBA pace will be a big issue for the Lakers going forward.
It’s interesting to note that Jordan was 35 when he won his sixth title in his 13th season with the Chicago Bulls in 1998. Jordan, though, was 21 when he entered the league (Bryant had just turned 18 before his rookie season), and sat out the 1993-94 season and most of the 1994-95 season. So while Jordan was 35 at the time of his sixth championship win, he had only played 1,109 games in his career (930 regular season, 179 playoff).
The other issues facing Bryant are who he’ll be playing with and who he’ll take instructions from. The Lakers have two big-time personnel decisions this summer, as both Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza will be unrestricted free agents.
Odom, who made $11.4 million this season, will turn 30 this year, and you know he’ll be looking for a new hefty contract. A player of his size and ability will likely have several potential suitors, and the Lakers might not be willing to give the Odom the money he might receive elsewhere.
Ariza, who had an outstanding run in the playoffs on both ends of the floor, will also likely be in line for a huge payday after earning $2.9 million this season. He’s about to turn 24 and has developed nicely into a defensive playmaker and an opportunistic scorer. Los Angeles will probably have to reward the younger Ariza for his role in the team’s championship run.
A core of Bryant, Ariza, Andrew Bynum, and Pau Gasol will be tough for any team in the league to deal with in the coming seasons, but only if Phil Jackson remains on the Laker bench.
Jackson, who will be 64 in September, has one year remaining on his contract with the Lakers. While he said he would be back next season to collect his $12 million salary, you have to wonder if Jackson will sign another extension in 2010, given his age and the fact that he surpassed Red Auerbach in winning a record 10th NBA Championship as a coach.
There’s a lot up in the air for the Lakers, and a lot to be gained by Bryant if he can keep playing at a high level with this Jackson-led group.
Greater Goals Within Reach
When Bryant receives his fourth championship ring, he’ll join an elite group of NBA players who have that much or more jewelry. The list of players who have won five or more championships is even more exclusive, with names like Johnson (five titles), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), Jordan (six), and Bill Russell (11).
Winning a fifth championship next season would not only boost Bryant into that “Five-or-More” category (currently occupied by just 37 players), it would push him past his rival O’Neal and the other legendary player of his generation, Tim Duncan, both of whom have won four championships.
Bryant is already among the league’s all-time greats and bolstered his career resume by winning his first Finals MVP Award. If the Lakers won the title next season and Bryant received the honor again, he’d become the ninth player in league history to win multiple Finals MVP Awards.
Bryant would join the likes of Jordan (six Finals MVP Awards), Duncan, Johnson, O’Neal (three each), Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Willis Reed (two each).
On top of all of that, if Bryant leads the Lakers to back-to-back titles next season, he’ll join only Jordan and Russell of the legends named above to twice lead teams to repeat title performances.
So, yes, even after securing that elusive fourth title, there’s still a lot on the line for Bryant, and he might not have that much time left.
But now that the “big, old monkey” is off his back, you get the feeling Bryant isn’t done yet.