LOS ANGELES — The legend has been built on the points and the championships.
The mystique comes from the persona.
Whether through the eyes of Shaquille O'Neal or Pau Gasol, 2004 Phil Jackson or 2011 Phil Jackson, fans who love him or fans who hate him, Kobe Bryant has always been the same controversial, compelling character: cocky jerk.
The difference lies in whether people frown and shake their heads that he's a cocky jerk who doesn't care about others...or they smile and shake their heads that he's a cocky jerk with heart, work ethic and a good sense of humor about it.
After what stands as the unequivocal worst season in Bryant's 18-year career, the expected personal redemption instead giving way to reborn futility, his basketball mortality is a very real concern.
What would register even more on a human level would be if the persona were dying, too.
Here was the innocent question directed to Bryant's Twitter account on March 27: "Do you have a favorite season out of the many that you've had with the Lakers?"
Bryant's pitch-perfect reply: "Yes. Next season."
This was the cocky jerk at his most inspirational, the unwavering self-assuredness his springboard to being optimistic, bold and unafraid. Bryant showed flashes of the old persona Thursday night in his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, too.
Bryant laughed as he finished that statement—at 35, he's much better at showing the sense of humor in the jerk these days—but he wasn't laughing when he declared actual confidence that the Lakers can win next season.
That's news to the Lakers' front office, which doesn't see anyone in free agency this summer who's worthy of blowing future salary-cap space on and capable of helping Bryant win overnight.
Although Bryant expressed confidence in team vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss to Kimmel, the respective agendas of player and management are simply not in line.
Bryant wants the Lakers to find a way. There must be a way, just as there turned out to be a way in 2007-08, when everything looked so bleak before Andrew Bynum became good and the Gasol trade made the Lakers great.
The Lakers don't see it.
"He's not the most patient person in the world, and that's not going to change," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said last month about Bryant.
"We've won five championships because of the package he brings to this franchise. We want to win and win as soon as possible. But it takes an organization a long time to get into the position we're in now where we have options going forward financially. We have to use wise decisions with that space."
Kupchak knows Bryant. He has been with Bryant his entire career, and his words essentially say the Lakers understand Bryant is a cocky jerk, but they still love the guy.
Kupchak knows Bryant, about to play what looms as the final two years of his career, is going to try to get his way. He already did that via savvy passive-aggressive means of D'Antoni disapproval. Sure enough, D'Antoni disappeared.
Now Bryant will revise history to Kimmel about the Lakers not consulting him on the D'Antoni hiring to make the point that they really should consult him now. (Bryant is on record in 2012 as saying he talked to Buss about both D'Antoni and Jackson and said he'd be happy with either after Mike Brown.)
In any case, the departure of D'Antoni sets things up nicely for Bryant, who has already pulled strings hard to sell Gasol on re-signing with the Lakers. This, despite Gasol undoubtedly having better and longer opportunities elsewhere in free agency to find a winning situation.
Even if Bryant gets the perfect new coach to maximize him as a primary post and wing weapon, even if he manages to bring Gasol back via the loyalty card, Kobe won't stop there.
He believes in applying pressure. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. Nevertheless, Bryant believes it accelerates progress, one way or another, in the same vein that trying something either gets you headed toward success or away from something you learn is failure.
So he's going to hold himself accountable to be lighter—as he clearly already was in the Kimmel spot and for those who saw him on the Lakers' practice court again last Friday—and thrive with thorough rehab despite what Kupchak termed "two career-threatening injuries."
Bryant is going to hold others accountable, too. Sometimes, uncomfortably so. Absolutely the way a cocky jerk does.
Roll with him or get rolled over—that has been Bryant's credo all along. It's what makes him so Kobe.
Here's the dark-side danger as the team moves forward: Who wants to ride with the cocky jerk if he can't put up and still won't shut up?
It is a realistic scenario. It's just one that doesn't even cross Kobe's mind.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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