Almost two decades into a triumphant alliance that has survived stubbornness, egos, heartbreak, age and even death, the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant face a summer mired in uncertainty and disquiet they've never encountered before.
Nearly 10 years ago, after three NBA championships and in the wake of unbending self-pride and discordant personalities, Los Angeles dissolved a toxic Shaquille O'Neal-Bryant partnership by trading the former to the Miami Heat ahead of the 2004-05 campaign.
This upcoming offseason is bigger than that divorce.
Roughly seven years ago, after two consecutive first-round playoff eliminations, the Lakers almost dealt an enraged, anxiety-ridden Bryant to the Detroit Pistons, before an 11th-hour meeting with the late Dr. Jerry Buss salvaged a quickly deteriorating situation, per Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.
This summer will be bigger than that moment was, bigger than it ever could have been.
In all their time together, Bryant and the Lakers have yet to travel down this road, where one wrong turn can stain and overshadow five NBA titles and 18 years of mostly fond memories.
Understanding One Another
Even now, the Lakers and Bryant are still trying to understand one another.
The two parties have disagreed plenty of times before. Shaq, Phil Jackson, Dwight Howard and collective expectations have been sore spots over the years. But this is the first time their paths, intertwined for so long, appear to be traveling in completely opposite directions.
Disconnects between players and teams are natural, especially in marriages with the longevity of this one. Players age. Teams start thinking about the future.
People move on.
Bryant and the Lakers looked like they may avoid this instinctive divide at first. The Black Mamba signed a two-year, $48.5 million extension before he returned from a ruptured Achilles.
It was a leap of faith by both sides. Bryant entrusted the final two years of his career to the Lakers, and the Lakers placed nearly $50 million worth of stock in their abrasive, 35-year-old shooting guard who continues to scorn Father Time.
Everything about their latest agreement was also obligatory. The Lakers and Bryant are indebted to one other, the former for their persisting loyalty, the latter for his lasting reliability.
Put simply, they owed it to each other to prolong this union, to attempt to stave off the inevitable one last time. The Lakers were committed to building an imminent winner around Bryant so long as he was able to bear that responsibility for at least two more years.
But after Bryant appeared in just six games this season, plans—like they often do—have changed.
For the Lakers, at least.
"Our goal is not to go 41-41," general manager Mitch Kupchak told USA Today's Sam Amick of the Lakers' plans next season. "That's not our goal. Our goal is to be considerably better than that. And maybe we can do it in a year, or maybe it takes two or three years, OK?"
Two years? Three years? Bryant doesn't have that kind of time. He's made that abundantly clear.
"But I think we need to accelerate it a little bit for selfish reasons, because I want to win and I want to win next season," he told ESPN's Darren Rovell during a "Sunday Conversation" segment for SportsCenter (via ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin.) "So, it's kind of getting them going now as opposed to two years from now."
Waiting, as yours truly explained previously, is the smart play. Though the Lakers have the cap space necessary to drastically improve their roster, the fortunes-turning talent they seek won't necessarily be available.
Most star free agents won't be going anywhere. LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade will all stay with the Miami Heat for at least another year. Carmelo Anthony is more likely to remain with Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks or sign with the Chicago Bulls than join forces with a soon-to-be 36-year-old Bryant.
After them, names like Kyle Lowry and Luol Deng take center stage. Neither of them will elevate the Lakers' status to where it needs to be, to where Bryant wants it to be.
Moreover, Bryant continues to fetter his quest for instant gratification by chasing ghosts. He wasn't happy with the Lakers—ahem—allowing Jackson to join the Knicks, and he's already advocating for the return of a 33-year-old Pau Gasol, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News.
If the Lakers were prepared to burn through stacks of cash this summer, re-signing Gasol—even at a discount—won't help them turn things around. All that does is leave them with another question mark eating into their cap space for a year or two (or three).
The Lakers and Bryant want the same thing: to win again. But so far, it appears they have two markedly different ideas of how to make that happen, a glaring misunderstanding they must address this summer, lest many of Bryant's final days be marred by incessant quibbling among family.
Testing the Waters
Perception is everything for the Lakers. Following two years of controversy and squandered expectations, they're about to see how much it has changed.
Consider this summer a measuring stick for how powerful the Lakers still are, and it will all start with their coaching search.
Upon Mike D'Antoni's departure, ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne revealed the team wanted to cause a stir with its next hire:
The Los Angeles Lakers plan a drawn-out and exhaustive search for Mike D'Antoni's successor as coach, but sources close to the process insist the team hopes to "make a splash" with its eventual hire.
To that end, sources say, Lakers officials intend to reach out to two of the biggest names in the college game -- UConn's Kevin Ollie and Kentucky's John Calipari -- to at least gauge their interest in the job.
Other big names have been linked to Los Angeles' coaching vacancy as well, per McMenamin:
According to BasketballInsiders.com's Steve Kyler, the Lakers also made their "usual" run at Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.
Notice anything here?
Many of these so-called "candidates" are both masters of their craft and employed. The Lakers are going big-name hunting, and they're doing so in other teams' backyards.
Years ago, they held the clout to poach one of these coaches. Coach K has always been considered untouchable, but Coach Cal and a guy like Ollie—who has only coached UConn for two years—would have likely jumped at the opportunity to guide these storied, championship banner-hanging Lakers.
The Lakers are basically trying to see if they still have that same influence, if their reputation is enough to land them the pieces necessary to contend again. Expect them to take a similar approach to free agency.
Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding reiterated that the Lakers weren't planning a free-agency coup this summer back in March, but they're still bound to gauge outside interest.
Would James actually consider relocating to Los Angeles? Will Anthony be the least bit interested in sporting purple and gold? Are lesser players like Deng, Lowry, Gordon Hayward and Lance Stephenson within their reach?
These weren't always questions.
Of course players wanted to join the Lakers. They're the Lakers.
Like everything else, though, the Lakers' reputation has changed over the last two years. From Dr. Buss' death, to Howard's departure, to Bryant's health, to the team's first lottery berth since 2005, things aren't the same.
Perception has changed. Everything the Lakers wish to do hinges—for the first time in nigh two decades—on just how much.
Bigger Than Kobe
Name the last time Los Angeles' offseason was bigger than Bryant.
You might not have been born yet.
Neon windbreakers were in style.
The Secret World of Alex Mack was in vogue.
Music was still on MTV.
The Lakers haven't had to plan for life without Bryant for almost 20 years. Slowly but surely, the future has snuck up on them, like a good, worth-your-time Steven Seagal movie.
Somewhere, in an offseason brimming with tough decisions, the Lakers will commit to Bryant—a symbol of happier, more gratifying times—or their future sans the Black Mamba and all the unavoidable uncertainty it offers.
If the Lakers see this summer as an opportunity to rebuild around Bryant, we'll know. Free agents will be signed to long-term deals. The player they select with their first-round pick won't be untouchable. Stars will be chased.
Money will be spent.
Additional leaps of faith will be taken.
If the Lakers, out of necessity, are more loyal to their post-Bryant era, we'll know as well. Restraint will be showed. One-year deals will overrun the roster.
Spending will be curbed.
Emphasis will be placed on summer 2015.
Bryant's wishes will be, for the first time ever, secondary to a vision that is deemed more important than himself.
Offseasons don't get much bigger, or, in the case of Bryant's Lakers, more foreign.
*Salary information via ShamSports.