With LeBron James opting to joining Dwyane Wade in Miami, Kobe Bryant instantly became the de facto best player in the NBA.
Yet next season, he's going to cement his place at the top of the NBA through his performance on the court.
People say Bryant is old and on the downward part of his career.
Yet he's only turning 32 in August. In Michael Jordan's final stint with the Chicago Bulls, he was in his mid-30s.
Bryant may have been in the league longer than Jordan and thus played more minutes, but with the improved conditioning techniques and rehabilitation, players can play longer.
Body condition aside, Kobe's statistics have held relatively constant over the past few seasons. Sure they are not as high as during the mid-2000s, but that was also when he had no teammates he could rely on.
Between two seasons ago and last season, he improved in points, rebounds, assists, and steals.
Those statistical spikes were moderate.
This year expect Kobe's output to rise significantly.
Bryant told the media that having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee could actually be a blessing in disguise.
This is what Bryant had to say while in China, according to Reuters:
"I have always got to be working and pushing myself. This summer is really the best training for me—to do nothing.
"The body needs rest and the injury has to heal. You have to recharge your body and get ready for next season. So in lots of ways, this is the hardest training for me."
It's no secret that Bryant is a perfectionist. Experts have said that's what sets him apart from the rest of the great players in the NBA, and why he has continued to dominate after losing some athleticism.
However, overworking his body this offseason would be detrimental to the Los Angeles Lakers completing a three-peat next season.
His knee surgery prevents that from happening.
Rest is exactly what Bryant needs to do at this stage of his career. Unlike LeBron, he can't afford to go all-out, all the time.
That seems like a setback, but Kobe has such a strong finesse game that he will just become a more efficient player.
Expect Bryant to have fresh legs heading into next season, which could show through improved field goal percentage.
Nothing brings out the best in a competitor quite like a rival does.
Kobe and LeBron were considered rivals last season. They joked around as puppets in commercials together, but they both led their teams to the best record in their respective conferences and had championship aspirations.
Bryant and Wade were considered rivals as well. They were arguably the top two shooting guards in the league, and Shaquille O'Neal intensified the rivalry through winning with both wingmen.
Well, in case you haven't heard, James and Wade are now together in South Beach.
Though all the attention should be on the Lakers heading into this season, it is instead all centered on the Miami Heat trio. Vegas even gave the newly formed team the best odds to win the NBA Championship.
Yes, even better odds then the back-to-back champs.
You can bet that's going to fuel Kobe's drive to stand atop the basketball world once more.
What's more, the youthful Oklahoma City Thunder are emerging as a contender in the Western Conference as well. They pushed the Lakers in last season's playoffs and will be back.
Bryant will step up his game even more in the wake of the new competition. Because he knows if he doesn't, he and the Lakers will become afterthoughts to the NBA's new young stars.
Phil Jackson contemplates retirement and then comes back so much, we should start calling him Brett Favre.
Though he was unsure if he would return to the sidelines, ultimately, it was obvious he wasn't going to walk away from this team. The Zen master will lead the Lakers once more.
No one pushed harder for Jackson to come back than Bryant.
Since achieving another three-peat would be a picture perfect ending for Jackson, Bryant will elevate his game to make sure that happens.
A coaching change can be an even more difficult adjustment than different players on the court, and Kobe knows that. This could be his last chance with Jackson, and he is going to want to make the most of it.
It's obviously championship or bust.
Jackson knows Kobe better than any other coach, and will keep him hungry for more even though Bryant has seemingly cemented his legacy as one of the all-time greats.
How? Perhaps by reminding Bryant that a certain N. 23 still has one more title than No. 24.
Take a look at that huddle. It's the core of the Lakers' 2010 championship team.
How many of those players left Los Angeles?
Overall, very few changes were made to last season's championship squad. The Lakers might lose Shannon Brown, but they added Matt Barnes, who will boost their defensive presence.
Last season was an adjustment process for Bryant in some ways, as he had to figure out how to best play with Ron Artest and without Luke Walton, among other things.
This season, it should be smooth sailing from that perspective.
Of course there are bound to be bumps along the way. Andrew Bynum can seemingly never stay healthy for an entire season.
Yet, this team can pretty much start right where it left off.
That could mean Bryant averages one more assist per contest. That mark, which would total six assists per game, would tie his career high.
This one hardly needs explaining.
Essentially, Kobe will be the best because he won't settle for being anything less than the best. No one will ever have the same drive as Jordan, but like MJ's fadeaway, Kobe is the closest to matching it.
He is a competitor in the strictest sense of the word. He always plays to win, and elevates his game to the level of his opposition, while also never playing down to an opponent.
As he gets older, more and more players are going to be considered the best in the game. It started with LeBron and Wade, and now Kevin Durant is going to enter the conversation.
Yet like he has done so many times before, Kobe will quiet the critics, and leave them all wondering why they ever doubted the Black Mamba.