The general conversation in the NBA right now is how a superstar grew old and wise enough to understand that a homemade fire feels good deep inside—and the invigorating joy of touching that fresh, gold trophy made by Tiffany & Co. really only goes skin-deep anyway.
It helps that the Miami Heat weren’t good enough anymore and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ cast could reach an elite level fast, meaning LeBron James’ odds of winning more championships actually increase. Yet the story arc is all about the homecoming king.
And it resonates with all of us who appreciate that pure, natural friends and family from our youth are different from business acquaintances made along the messy, sometimes cutthroat path toward career success.
But what about the guy who has always viewed himself as much different than James?
That would be Kobe Bryant, who once sneered like a school bully at James chasing trophies Bryant had already fingerprinted on five separate occasions, ribbing him about running from Cleveland and figuring James could at least enjoy another NBA MVP honor and find a nice place to live.
The implication then was that nothing was above winning for Bryant. He wanted it more and in a far more meaningful way than anyone, including James with his shallow 2010 pursuit.
It has never been the kind of image that Bryant needed handlers to perpetuate. He will get messy; he will be cutthroat. He believes he’s a winner the way you believe you’re a human.
So what happens now and the rest of the way for Bryant, who plans to play only two more years before retirement and hasn’t won a title since James was last in Cleveland?
The Lakers have precious little to offer Bryant besides the money they already eagerly gave to make sure he would stay with them. The state of affairs in Los Angeles runs completely contrary to Bryant’s unabashed demand for winning, and it’s in fact getting worse.
The team has gone from not knowing who was its third-best player behind Bryant and Pau Gasol to not knowing who is its second-best player now. And Bryant still has to prove that he can stay healthy and produce as a best player must.
No, Carmelo Anthony didn’t come to the rescue this summer. So it’s a lock that Bryant is going to have his moments of deep frustration in the coming season, no matter if at 36 when the season starts he surprises the swelling number of doubters with another individual renaissance.
Even if the Lakers’ next target a year from now splits the bull's-eye, with a top-shelf free agent such as Kevin Love or Marc Gasol coming in, it’s likely too little and too late to win a title in Bryant’s final season. It becomes possible to imagine Bryant inches away from the self-declared end of his tunnel in 2016—and not having played a single playoff game for four years.
That might be too much for the winner to tolerate.
If the Lakers can encourage their fans to speculate on Kevin Durant coming to them as a free agent in 2016, then it’s not unfair to wonder whether Bryant in ’16 might put off retirement and hit the campaign trail for one more shot at the top somewhere.
A lot of games need to be played and lost before such a day comes. There might, however, come that day when the winner within Bryant needs to fix his addiction for victory, even if it means abandoning principles he evangelizes about: the pride, loyalty and Derek Jeter-is-and-always-will-be-a-Yankee factor that Bryant endorsed via Twitter on Monday.
For now, Bryant’s focus only extends to winning games and not losing them. He made that clear last Wednesday at a press conference in Santa Barbara, California, when he endorsed Lakers management’s efforts to bring him help.
Asked if he has the patience for this rebuilding process, he said, “I’ve never had patience. I’m not going to start now.”
He said it, though, with a hearty laugh, not the steely Kobe stare. The tone was nowhere near him calling the failed three-peat season in 2012 “a wasted year of my life” or even in March when he shared some fears about the club’s direction with Mike D’Antoni as coach.
Bryant actually segued immediately from his joke Wednesday about lacking patience to expressing support for the Buss family. He conveyed willingness to make the best of whatever bad situation in which he is put.
“But you do what you have to do,” he continued. “If this organization ends up with absolutely nothing, it’s not for a lack of effort. That’s something I would be extremely proud of, that we put forth the effort and gave it a best shot. What can you do? You go from there, and it’s on me to go out there and do my best to try and help us win.”
If you hated him for being a cocky, shot-happy kid, the reality is that he’s a little different as a cocky, shot-happy man.
Phil Jackson believes parenthood for Bryant triggered a greater understanding of how long meaningful advancement can take. All the marbles he painstakingly struggled to pick up with his toes during that tedious Achilles rehab helped, too.
He’s a notorious control freak, and it’s always possible that Bryant loses it at some point if the Lakers can’t win. Possible, but not as probable as before.
Bryant knows that when he emotionally demanded a trade from the Lakers in 2007, it was rooted in his belief that the team was not trying to get him help. He saw the Lakers had moves they were passing up.
For now, he is listening to what Mitch Kupchak is telling him. The team doesn't have nearly the same kind of assets to turn this around as it did then.
Bryant and Kupchak have been texting amid the free-agent results that Lakers fans have found so dissatisfying. For the record, here’s what Kupchak was already saying a few months ago:
“What this team went through this year is really no different than what we went through the year after we traded Shaquille O’Neal. It’s the exact same thing. I think because Dr. (Jerry) Buss was alive, and there was a different level of trust because he’d been doing this for 25 years, I think people may have been more patient.”
The Lakers engineered a swift rebuild back then—being bad enough in 2005 to draft Andrew Bynum, then absorbing two first-round playoff exits before jumping right back into the NBA Finals in ’08 after the Pau trade.
If the best-case parallel from this post-Dwight Howard rebuild is the four-year turnaround from that era, it means the team has at least three years left on the clock.
Bryant has only two left.
Right now, the conversation is about James, and it might well be again when his contract with the Cavaliers expires again in 2016. Maybe Bryant will be in the discussion then, too.
Maybe he’ll see enough promise in the Lakers and feel enough juice left in his legs to stay on with them. Yet maybe Bryant will feel the pull to go somewhere to win.
The more meaningful point he was making to James with his cutting message back in 2010 was how amazing it feels to win something built from the ground up by you, around you, for those who’ve long supported you.
James’ move back to Northeast Ohio now is in the direction of that pioneer spirit Bryant has always been about.
It’s why his last two titles with Pau coming in to help have been so much more meaningful to him than his first three with Shaq expected to carry him.
Once upon a time, Bryant let the notion of threatening Bill Russell’s 11 NBA championships flit into his dreams. Nowadays, he appreciates just how hard it is to win one.
Bryant has better perspective than he did before.
The coming years will reveal to us if he can really be at peace with it.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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