At one point, that would have been considered a good thing. A great thing. Bryant has been many things throughout his illustrious NBA career—incredible, annoying, critical, outspoken, impatient, honest and demanding, to name a few.
Above all else, he's been reliable.
When he was injured, he played, When he fell on the wrong side of 30, he played. When he was approaching 35, he played. And he played well.
For a while, it looked like Bryant was the exception to every rule ever. Screw time. Forget age. As long as Bryant played, he would be an asset both on and off the court.
That's all changed.
Bryant is no longer the vast-reaching resource he once was, the player an entire city once counted on. Truthfully, the Lakers don't know who or what he is now. Figuring that out is their toughest task, leaving Bryant, for once, as the biggest obstacle standing between where the Lakers are and where they need to be.
Age Is More Than a Number
Sorry to spit hot fire here, but Bryant isn't a kid anymore. He isn't the handbill for durability or the first one to eschew Father Time.
The Black Mamba is human.
It hurts. I know. During the 2012-13 season, Bryant was having an unprecedented year for someone his age. He remains the oldest player in NBA history to average at least 27 points, six assists and five rebounds per game in the same season. It was on his back the highly touted, wildly disappointing Lakers remained in playoff contention.
Then, like a Chumbawamba hit single, he was abruptly gone.
Bryant ruptured his Achilles, began an extensive rehabilitation process and returned, only to fall again. He has played just six games since April 2013. When next season rolls around, we'll be talking about Bryant having appeared in just six contests in the last 18 months.
Only Derrick Rose is jealous.
What should the Lakers expect from Bryant upon his next return?
Never mind whom they may hire as their next head coach, Bryant impacts their trajectory more. Is his insane work ethic enough to guarantee he'll remain both available and productive? Or is this the start of a limited, age-impeded, minutes-capped era that no one—not even the most ardent of Bryant's detractors—should be ready for?
Let's defer to the Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus, who tackled this same issue in April, for a moment:
With 18 seasons of mileage on his knees, Bryant will turn 36 in August. He averaged 13.8 points and 6.3 assists in 29.5 minutes a game through his brief stint, still feeling out his game after the Achilles' injury.
Last year, Bryant averaged 27.3 points with 6.0 assists while playing 38.6 minutes a game.
If age is going to have an effect on Bryant's game, the dip may come in minutes on the floor -- 30 a night may be a more realistic mark.
How well Bryant adjusts to his new and unimproved body remains to be seen. Thirty minutes might not be enough for him to play at an All-Star level. Asking him to play 30 minutes could be too much.
Not knowing how much he has left is more than half the battle. At no point have Bryant's contributions ever been a mystery. Now that they are, the Lakers have some crucial decisions to make.
When the Lakers handed Bryant $48.5 million over the next two seasons, they were betting that he would be fine, that he would return to form or close to form before 2013-14 was out.
They were wrong. Now they're at the point where they must place a similar bet with more significant consequences.
Suffering through another lottery-forsaken season isn't an option. It is and isn't, really. The Lakers made a pact when they re-signed Bryant, a binding agreement that requires them to keep him happy.
Winning is the only way to do that.
"We might have had the worst season ever or could have the worst season ever for a Lakers team, but now let's have the greatest comeback that the league has ever seen," Bryant told ESPN's Darren Rovell during a "Sunday Conversation" segment for SportsCenter, via ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin.
That doesn't sound like a Mamba willing to wait around and slog through another season of ups, downs and Kent Bazemore. As Bryant went on to tell Rovell, the Lakers made it clear they're prepared to contend again soon.
Turns out the team and its star shooting guard may have a different interpretation of "soon."
While speaking with USA Today's Sam Amick, general manager Mitch Kupchak reiterated that the Lakers have no intention of doing "knee-jerk stuff." If it takes them a couple years to completely revive the franchise, then so be it.
Any logical person understands that's the right move. Though the Lakers have cap space to burn this summer, LeBron James isn't walking through that door. The star free-agency well has the potential to dry up quickly, with three of its biggest names—James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh—all likely to remain where they are.
Summer 2015 provides the Lakers with more options. Steve Nash's contract comes off their books and Marc Gasol, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love and even James, among others, could all hit the open market.
(Quick aside: Roy Hibbert could also be available in 2015. If the Lakers are feeling particularly reckless and stupid, they could pursue him. Or they could set fire to tens of millions of dollars in the middle of Rodeo Drive. That might be both cheaper and generate more rebounds.)
Try slinging those intentions to Bryant, who will no doubt see them as a gimmick and sign of weakness. But that's because it conflicts with his self-serving agenda. He wants to win a sixth ring. Waiting isn't an option for a player who has a two-year window, and even that might be pushing it.
At the same time, Bryant also appears to have a warped sense of reality, which is another thing the Lakers must deal with and—if they're lucky—hopefully dispel.
If you remember, he was the one advocating for Metta World Peace's return last summer.
He was the one who didn't understand why the Lakers wouldn't move heaven and earth and Mike D'Antoni's parking spot to make room for Phil Jackson before he joined forces with the New York Knicks, per the New York Daily News' Frank Isola.
Is he also the one who remains stuck in 2009?
Sure seems like it.
Not only do the Lakers not know what they'll get from Bryant next season, but the two parties are operating on different wavelengths. Even if the Lakers were to go all in on this offseason, Bryant has a completely divergent sense of what it takes to win now. He's lusting after the past, when both he and the Lakers should be looking forward.
Legend vs. Future
In the event the Lakers and Bryant bust through all other barriers, more blockades await.
Once the Lakers figure out the plan, once they understand what kinds of players they need to pair alongside Bryant, they're left to go out and execute said plan in a very specific, limited time frame.
Whether it's this summer or next, they have to sell free agents on playing in Los Angeles. And while they'll always have market appeal, they have $48.5 million committed to a timeworn Bryant. The prospect of playing one or two years alongside a ruthlessly demanding, cap-clogging veteran could be enough to chase free agents away.
The Lakers face issues similar to the Chicago Bulls, who also cannot promise free agents their star player (Rose) will remain healthy. Los Angeles' situation is arguably even worse. Rose is a decade Bryant's junior. It's easier to peddle the miraculous recovery of a 25-year-old than it is a veteran with nearly two decades of NBA miles on his legs.
There's the matter of Bryant's willingness to share the spotlight too. He was one of the reasons Dwight Howard left. Convincing everyone else that things will be different is paramount. Bryant cannot carry himself with the same top-dog, I'm-doing-you-a-favor bravado that was once acceptable and easy to overlook.
Whatever stars the Lakers plan to chase, Bryant needs them. All of them. It's not the other way around. To get that sixth ring, he'll have to take a step back, ensuring prospective teammates that he is there to be their sidekick, their equal.
Anything less, and Bryant will fracture an already fragile rebuilding project that both exists and has become uncommonly challenging because of him.
*Salary information via ShamSports.
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