Kobe Bryant knows time is not on his side. But, while he yearns for that sixth championship, Bryant must also realize it's not going to happen right away.
Bryant need only look at the young, inexperienced, injury-prone Los Angeles Lakers roster to realize it's going to take a whole lot more than one high, first-round draft choice to bring back the magic.
L.A. is in store for a major overhaul this offseason, starting with a decision on head coach Mike D'Antoni, and the even-more difficult task of determining what the roster will look like for 2014-15.
The Lakers will need a plan to make over a squad that has the distinction of losing the most games in franchise history. With Bryant's guaranteed place on the team for the next two years, he'll need to embrace his role as elder statesman and mentor for the young talent certain to join L.A. when camp starts in the fall.
The word patience has never been one to share a sentence with the name Kobe Bryant. The Black Mamba thrives on winning, both individually and as a team, and has little patience when it doesn't happen.
Until this season, Bryant had been to the playoffs 16 of the 17 years he's been with the Lakers. But the 2013-14 campaign has been, without question, the most difficult for him. It's hard to be a mentor when you're only able to play in six games and your team is setting records for ineptitude.
Still, Bryant, who has been AWOL from the Lakers bench of late, really should be showing support for his teammates. Via Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times:
It doesn't matter that the season has long been lost or that more than half the roster will be turned over in a matter of months. Bryant's presence lets the fans know that he still cares, that he remains the face of the franchise at a time when most would rather be reminded of anyone besides executive Jim Buss.
As the Lakers finish up their worst season since coming to Los Angeles 54 years ago, Bryant is well aware that his purple and gold are more black and blue. Help may be on the way in the form of high-level free agents, but most of that relief won't be on the market for at least another year.
In the meantime, the Lakers of 2014-15 will probably include at least one top draft pick and younger (read: inexpensive) players they sign as free agents. Sound familiar?
With title hopes at least two to three years away, the big question is: can Kobe Bryant be a mentor to his teammates while at the same time demand execution, big-time wins and possible championships?
The answer is maybe. Bryant has demonstrated that ability, but he wants to see results and will settle for nothing else. Complacency and mediocrity don't cut it with him.
Over 17 seasons, Bryant has gone from being a 17-year-old who thought he knew it all to arguably the hardest-working player in the NBA. He leads by example and that execution has led many players to commend him for it, even if their personalities clashed (Dwight Howard, Shaquille O'Neal).
Despite their disagreements, Howard applauded Bryant for what he learned during his all-too-brief stint with the Lakers last year. According to Melissa Rohlin of the Los Angeles Times (via LakersNation.com) Howard said of Bryant:
“He’s not one of those guys who’s going to get in the locker room and be vocal. He’s just going to do everything on the court. That’s the way he shows his leadership, just by how hard he plays, how hard he trains. [Bryant] has done a great job of that and not allowing other teams to see your frustration. He’s good at it. It’s just one thing that’s going to help me grow as a player. It’s not letting little things affect me, at least not showing it to the point where my teammates feel as though I’m not focused on the game.”
Bryant didn't really help change Howard (people are who they are) and the big man left last summer for the Houston Rockets. But, his approach to the game and the seriousness in which he takes it is something younger Lakers can and will benefit from.
Nick Young is a perfect example. Uncertain of his status for next season, the team's leading scorer (17.6 points per game, the best of his career) is a huge fan of Bryant's and hopes he'll be around next year when Kobe is healthy.
Kobe has been a great mentor for me, just telling me all types of things during the game. That’s been unbelievable for me this whole year, learning from the greatest player to play this game. Who wouldn’t want to learn from and have Kobe in the locker room?
Bryant's toughness has also rubbed off on shooting guard Jodie Meeks, certainly the team's MVP this year. After scoring a career-high 42 points in a surprising upset of the Oklahoma City Thunder last month, Meeks paid tribute to Bryant for helping his game.
Meeks has almost doubled his career averages this season (33 minutes, 16 points, 46 percent shooting (40 percent from three-point line), three rebounds, two assists and 1.4 steals per game) and credits Bryant for much of that improvement.
(Via Mark Medina of InsideSocal.com):
The biggest thing I’ve learned the most from Kobe is his mental approach to the game. No matter if we played last night, if he’s sick or hurt, he’s always ready to play. This year, I try to take that aspect in my game. No excuses. No matter how the season is going, go out there and play hard and give it your best effort.
Bryant is looking forward to big changes from his employers this off season. Given his unusual display of public commentary in recent weeks, we know Bryant does not want to play for D'Antoni, does want Pau Gasol back with the Lakers and does want management to field a team capable of contending next season, not in two or three years.
When asked on Twitter if he'd like for the team to select either Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker in the upcoming NBA draft, Bryant tweeted (via Bleacher Report's Joe Flynn): "both have great potential. I'd mentor either one."
And there's also Dante Exum, the Australian phenom, who has made it known he'd love to play in Los Angeles. In fact, the 18-year-old shooting guard already is thinking about the possibilities.
Exum might have a few things going for him (per Sean Deveney of The Sporting News). Exum has already signed with Kobe Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka, and plans to talk to the five-time NBA champion in the near future. The Lakers appear to think highly of the Australian prospect and may roll the dice on him if he's still on the board on June 26.
How likely is it that the Lakers win a championship next season?
Bryant excitedly accepted the Lakers' generous extension offer of $48.5 million to play two more seasons and pursue that elusive sixth title. Via Yahoo! Sports Matt Moore: "I'm very fortunate to be with an organization that understands how to take care of its players, and put a great team out on the floor. They've figured out how to do both."
That was in November. Now Bryant faces the biggest challenge of his Hall of Fame career because his great Lakers are no more.
When he shut down his season in March, Bryant spoke to reporters and it was easy to see and feel his anger at the current the state of Lakers basketball. Via L.A. Times and Bill Plashke, "This is not what we stand for, this is not what we play for.”
The real test for Kobe Bean Bryant, mentor and master, will come later this year.