Los Angeles Lakers' Future Still Rests in Kobe Bryant's Hands

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 22, 2014

Dec 13, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant warms up prior to the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Kobe Bryant's present with the Los Angeles Lakers is littered with question marks, and his future with the franchise might be better measured in months instead of years.

But his position within the organization is the same one he's held the majority of his career. He is the Lakers' most important player for today and tomorrow. That fact is somehow equal parts entirely predictable and incredibly astounding.

On one hand, Bryant is a historically prolific player with a resume and competitive edge nearly unrivaled by his NBA brethren past and present. He is a 16-time All-Star, five-time champion and the fourth-highest scorer in league history (31,700 career points and counting).

He isn't passing the baton to anyone. Someone will have to rip it away from him.

That isn't news to those who have watched a second of his career, but it's remarkable nonetheless. He turns 36 on Saturday and has dealt with both a torn Achilles and a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee since April 2013, but he's unquestionably a franchise leader in a young man's game.

As someone who once jumped straight from the high school ranks to the big leagues, his basketball clock is ticking even faster than his biological one.

Across his first 18 seasons in the league, he has logged 45,567 minutes across 1,245 games. Those totals don't even account for the extensive playoff runs that put another 220 games and 8,641 minutes on his odometer.

There is no way to roll back the mileage. Anything taken by Father Time over the years—explosiveness, agility, quickness—is a casualty of the same war legends have been waging and losing for decades.

Bryant is evolving, doing what he can to offset his physical losses with mental and tactical gains. He isn't the same player he once was, but he says it's wrong to assume he'll automatically be worse for the wear.

"When I hear pundits and people talk saying, 'Well, he won't be what he was.' Know what? You're right," he told Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard. "I won't be. But just because something evolves, it doesn't make it any less better than it was before."

Maybe those words are nothing more than arrogance. History has not been kind to players dealing with his type of setbacks, let alone ones attempting the feat so late in their careers.

Then again, if he's able to prove his critics wrong, it certainly wouldn't be the first time.

Forget about the disastrous 2013-14 campaign for a moment, when injuries kept him off the floor for all but six games and the Lakers posted their second-lowest winning percentage in franchise history (.329).

Just one season prior he was still cemented among the game's current greats. In 2012-13, he put up 27.3 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting along with 6.0 assists and 5.6 rebounds. Do you know how many players averaged 27 points on 46 percent shooting, six dimes and five boards last season? One: four-time MVP LeBron James.

Feb 16, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant speaks during a press conference before the 2014 NBA All-Star Game at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Can Bryant still be that type of player? Well, it depends who you ask.

Reggie Miller, who spent 18 seasons in the league, says no. He said Bryant has a chance to still be pretty good, but greatness might be out of the question, via Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times:

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak disagrees.

"My window overlooks the court, and he comes in to work out from time to time," Kupchak said, via Lyle Spencer of Sports on Earth. "You would not know he's in his mid-30s. You wouldn't know he hurt his knee and had a torn Achilles. There's no limp. He's got a hop in his step."

That's the type of thing Lakers fans need to hear.

After firing blanks at top-shelf free-agent targets Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, the franchise invested its offseason funds in players who won't tie up the books moving forward.

The Lakers found some talent this summer—rookie Julius Randle could be a steal, Ed Davis has plenty of upside and veterans Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer bring over some proven production—but that might not equate to much in the fully-loaded Western Conference.

As CBS Sports' Zach Harper observed, the Lakers will enter next season fighting a steep uphill battle for a playoff spot:

How much would have to go their way, while finding worst-case scenarios for a handful of other teams, to get them into the playoffs in 2015? The Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Warriors, Blazers, Rockets, Mavericks, Grizzlies, Suns, and Nuggets are all undeniably better than this Lakers team at its best. The Pelicans are likely better than this Lakers team as well. The Wolves could be decently competitive for a good portion of the season and the Kings might actually have more in their favor than this Lakers team if not everything goes well for Los Angeles.

That might not seem like it matters much. After all, the Lakers are largely plotting their next championship run around their potential success in the 2015 or 2016 free-agent markets.

However, L.A.'s future strides may well be tied to the present. The whiffs of this past offseason suggest that the Lakers may no longer have the same pull with the league's top talent.

"They failed to get Carmelo Anthony or James, proving the Lakers are no longer the free-agent destination they used to be," wrote Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 29:  Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks and Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers talk during the first half at Staples Center on December 29, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

The Lakers haven't lost their built-in market advantages, and L.A.'s climate is as inviting as ever. Those championship banners inside the Staples Center haven't come down, and the team can still sell players on the opportunity to be the next star for such a proud organization.

But it's hard to say how much things like market size, weather and history still matter to NBA players when James can turn the Cleveland Cavaliers into a destination franchise.

Today's premier players, by and large, need to see some chance at success. And that's why Bryant, despite having only two years left on his contract, will play such a massive role in the Lakers' future.

With only $36 million in guaranteed money committed to the 2015-16 payroll, via ShamSports.com, the Lakers have the means to pursue some of the stars of the 2015 free-agent class.

However, they'll need a healthy, productive Bryant to really bolster their recruiting pitch. His attitude might not always blend well with others (see: Dwight Howard), but championship-caliber numbers are hard to ignore.

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 16:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands during a free throw against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on December 16, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadin
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

If he can be the Bryant of old—as opposed to an old Bryant—he might convince a top player (whether that's someone like Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol or LaMarcus Aldridge next summer or even a Kevin Durant the following year) he can still play a significant role on a title team.

But if Bryant's body breaks down and the team's performance nosedives with it, the Lakers could be stuck with stacks of cash and no impactful way to spend it.

He seems to think his best days aren't completely behind him, and maybe he'll be proved right. It's a gamble the Lakers have no choice but to take, and one that offers either a road back to relevance or a stumble that could set this franchise back for years.

This team is overloaded with questions, and Bryant, once again, is the only man capable of providing any answers.