The Black Mamba as Whitesnake
There is no question that Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest Lakers ever to don the purple and gold this millennium, playing with perfect pitch as sidekick and Robin to Shaquille O'Neal's Batman/Superman/Iron Man/God.
During their time together, the duo won three consecutive NBA Championships from 2000-2002, the first titles for the Los Angeles Lakers since 1988 when the Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-led squad won the final of their five championships together.
After a heartbreaking Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons in 2004, Shaq and Kobe split ways, fueled by a feud that reached its crescendo when Bryant revealed to Colorado authorities of Shaq's marital infidelities during Bryant's arrest for sexual assault on a Colorado hotel employee prior to the 2003-04 season.
With O'Neal gone, Bryant was left to lead the Lakers by himself, resulting in the team missing the playoffs for the first time in over a decade.
Bryant persevered, however.
Though suffering back-to-back first-round playoff exits the following two years, Kobe slowly found his voice and his role as the leader of the Lakers under the inspired direction of Phil Jackson, and assisted by then-Memphis Grizzlies GM Jerry West's gift trade of Pau Gasol for Kwame Brown, helped bring another two titles to Los Angeles in 2009 and 2010.
However, Kobe's athletic prowess has steadily declined since the 2005-06 season, when he averaged his career high of 35.4 points, to this year averaging exactly 10 less points.
Though his rebounding and assist averages have remained consistent, his scoring average has dropped each year since along with his minutes, the result of the mounting toll 15 years in the league has had on his body and the injuries that he has suffered as a result.
With Kobe's growing age and diminishing skills, the Lakers as a team are also in decline, with all starters except for Andrew Bynum over the age of 30, and starting point guard Derek Fisher at 36 years old being one of the oldest players in the league.
Despite his age and his reduced effectiveness, Bryant still has three more seasons left on his contract with the Lakers after signing a three-year, $83.55 million extension in 2010, which takes effect next season and will pay him an eye-popping $30,453,805 during the 2013-14 season.
With the Lakers already saddled with the highest payroll in the NBA, paying the most luxury tax of any team and with the new collective bargaining agreement looming this summer that threatens not only to reduce the salary cap but to install a NFL-style hard cap which teams are not allowed to exceed, Bryant's contract will prove detrimental to the Lakers' efforts in bringing in newer, younger players that can help reverse the team's current decline.
As Bryant has stated that he intends to play even beyond his current extension, the Lakers might be forced to offer the then 35-year-old Bryant with another extension after 2014, further obstructing any efforts to bring in another maximum contract franchise-type player that can lead the team toward the next era.
Without having a continuation of infusing young, elite talent into the team, the Lakers will be put in a position of needing to rebuild after Bryant finally retires, which will cause even more delay in bringing the Lakers back into championship contention.
After Abdul-Jabbar retired in 1989, followed shortly after by Magic's early retirement in 1991 as a result of contracting the HIV virus, it took the Lakers 12 years after the 1988 title to win another championship through the rebuilding process.
It was only after the Lakers won the Shaquille O'Neal free-agency sweepstakes in 1996, combined with trading Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets during the 1996 NBA Draft for Bryant—a steal as the 13th pick though considered risky at the time with Kobe being a high school prospect—that we were able to put together our next championship-winning nucleus.
With the potential of a hard salary cap installed as a result of the new CBA, the playing fields for all teams will be leveled, and the possibility of scoring another Shaq and Kobe-esque coup will undoubtedly diminish for the Lakers.
Though his legacy as a Laker hero is forever set in stone, Kobe's diminishing skills along with his hugely inflated contract in the era of the new CBA and his insistence to play years beyond his prime will be the major reasons why the Los Angeles Lakers will not win another NBA Championship for the next five years, if not for many more seasons after that.