Kobe Bryant's NBA Legacy May Be on the Line Next Season

Howard Ruben@howardrubenContributor ISeptember 9, 2011

DALLAS, TX - MAY 08:  Kobe Bryant #25 of the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Four of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2011 NBA Playoffs on May 8, 2011 at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

When you’re king of the NBA hill for as long as Kobe Bryant has been, there comes a time when the doubters and naysayers come out of the woodwork in force. 

Many of them, and they are plentiful (various media, players, coaches and fans), looked at Bryant’s poor performance against Dallas in the conference semifinals and came to the conclusion that his best days were way behind him.

Kobe turned 33 in August and has had a long summer to ponder just what went wrong last season, including why his mostly reliable outside shooting skills disappeared during the second round of the playoffs when the Lakers needed it most. 

Bryant shot just under 23 percent from three-point range in the four-game sweep against the Mavericks, after hitting on 37 percent in the first-round series victory over New Orleans.  His assists went from 3.8 versus the Hornets to 2.5 against Dallas. 

Kobe averaged 37 minutes per game in those four losses as the team obviously looked to him for leadership and more scoring than the 23.3 points that he ended up with. The wipe out by Dallas was a team effort consisting of horrific shooting and a disappearing bench, but Bryant takes responsibility for being its fearless leader. 

And so, is Kobe Bryant worth what the Lakers are paying him, and is this the year he must once again lead the Lakers to an NBA title in order to cement his legacy among the immortals of professional basketball? 

The answers: a resounding YES to the first, a definitive NO to the second.

Bryant is slated to earn $25.244 million this season, $27.849 million for 2012-13 and $30.453 million during the 2013-14 campaign when he’ll be 35.  Those are some pretty astronomical numbers for a player who is entering the downside of a brilliant career.

For those who think his legacy is on the line, you have to consider the standards that Bryant measures himself by.  Nothing short of a championship is considered a good year for number 24.  To date, and over 15 seasons, he’s been able to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy five times, a rather remarkable accomplishment few have enjoyed.

Still, the critics say he never will approach the status of Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan, who won six titles during his illustrious career and changed professional basketball with his incredible scoring, defensive consistency and laser-like focus.

Since entering the league straight from Lower Merion High School in 1996, Kobe Bryant has been chasing the basketball ghost of MJ and it won’t end till his own career is over—and maybe not even then. 

But, it’s a futile comparison.  There is no one like Jordan and never will be. Same can be said of Kobe.

Consider what Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon wrote last year after the Lakers had dispatched the Celtics in seven games (http://views.washingtonpost.com/world-wide-wilbon/wilbon/2010/06/kobe_bryants_legacy.html): “Bryant is the best player in the game today, which ought to be praise enough but apparently isn't.  He is an incredible scorer.  Give Kobe credit, he is definitely not playing with another top-50 all-time player beside him like MJ had in Pippen, Kobe has had to carry more of the burden.” 

So while Kobe bashers continue to find holes in his game and, ultimately, his place in basketball’s hierarchy, the statistics don’t lie and neither do the video highlight reels.  Kobe Bryant averaged almost five fewer minutes on the court in 2010-11 than he did the previous season.  And yet, his scoring average of 25.3 (which happens to be his career mark as well) points per game was just 1.7 less than the prior year.

Expect more of the same greatness from Kobe this year.  After the playoffs, he went to Germany and had platelet-rich plasma therapy in an effort to strengthen his chronically-injured knee.  There is more spring in his step, which was in evidence during his summer basketball camp.

Kobe Bryant’s legacy is not on the line.  Though still being written, this much is certain: regardless of how the next season evolves, Bryant is the game’s top player of the past 10 years and one of the top 10 of all time. 

Period…end of story.