Kobe Bryant finds himself in unfamiliar territory with the Los Angeles Lakers, injured and aging, desperately trying to win another championship that's predicated on the performances of players the team doesn't yet have.
Adjustments don't come much more abruptly for a player who, for so long, was the Lakers' primary championship lifeline, second to no one, least of all to teammates existing only in theory.
Time is a funny thing, though, fickle in its impact, yet overwhelming in its end result. It cannot be tricked or outrun, cheated or defeated. Inevitably, it gets the best of everyone, like it has Bryant in the last year.
Make no mistake, the lionhearted Bryant has the will and work ethic of 20-year-olds and the self-confidence and fearlessness of clairvoyantly accurate crystal-ball gazers. But while heart is there, the self-reliance, whether Bryant admits it or not, can't be.
If the Lakers are to extend his championship window into next season and beyond, they must rebuild through free agency this summer and next. Never mind NBA-ready draft picks or extensive, worthwhile projects. The Lakers need stars—partners who define Bryant's twilight through winning and title contention, not natural regression.
Pairing Bryant with that second and third superstar is, historically, easier said than done, simpler financially than in reality.
Egos clash in any environment where multiple personalities fancy themselves alpha dogs. Each time that's happened in Lakerland, Bryant has come out on top, no matter how long it's taken.
Non-negotiable pecking orders have generally worked for the Lakers. Bryant has five rings as proof. Breakups and shifts in direction haven't always been optimal—think of how many titles Kobe and Shaq could have actually won together—but the Lakers' and Bryant's championship ambitions have always survived.
Here's where the uncharted territory comes in.
Past loyalty and stubbornness depicted as competitive fire are no longer all right. Bryant won't win a sixth championship on his own. He won't win one with only Gasol by his side, and not just because the latter may leave this summer.
For the first time in his career, Bryant's legacy, his reputation—much like his body—is a deterrent. Free agents won't flock to Los Angeles with the sole intention of playing under the 35-going-on-36-year-old Bryant.
Howard's free-agency decision is still a stark reminder of how much things have changed.
Who leaves the Lakers? Who willingly leaves the storied, championship-winning Lakers?
Howard. And he left because of Bryant.
"You need to learn how it's done first," Bryant reportedly told Howard last summer, per Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, "and I can teach you here."
While Howard's perception of himself exceeds that of many other stars, there are few luminaries who want to hear such things from an aging stud who has yet to prove his career won't succumb to age and injury like so many before him.
If Bryant wants to win again before retiring, he needs to understand that, and we know he wants to win.
"But I think we need to accelerate it a little bit for selfish reasons, because I want to win and I want to win next season," Bryant told Darren Rovell for SportsCenter's "Sunday Conversation," per ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin.
To win selfishly, Bryant must, for the first time, allow the team to rebuild selflessly.
What He Must Avoid
The Lakers are already at a slight disadvantage because of Bryant's lofty extension, which has him earning at least $23.5 million in each of the next two seasons.
Once they hand out another max contract, once they convince another star to join Bryant, there won't be much left work to with. That's the hand they dealt themselves. That's the hand they must play.
What they need from Bryant, now that his cost has been determined, is concession, an admission that he needs whomever the Lakers want and not the other way around.
If he struts into free-agent meetings over the next two summers—assuming he'll be present—and starts babbling on about how he can teach Kevin Love or Carmelo Anthony how to win, or LeBron James or Chris Bosh how to win more, it's not going to look good. Maybe he gets away with it when speaking to Anthony, a known friend and fellow volume scorer, but there's little hope of it flying with anyone else.
Not only does it sound ridiculous for an ebbing veteran to preach winning and success to younger superstars in their prime, but it's another indicator of Bryant's refusal to let go, of his inability to accept that times have changed.
As fiercely competitive, loyal and yes, talented, as he is, Bryant is equally territorial.
"I got a question earlier about whose team this is," Bryant told reporters at the Lakers media day in October 2012, before Howard even made his team debut, per McMenamin. "I don't want to get into the, 'Well, we share ...' No, it's my team."
More rants like that aren't going to help the team, nor will they help Bryant. All they could potentially do is cost the Lakers free agents, and Bryant his shot at a sixth championship.
Anything Bryant says to recruits must include "your team" or "our team."
There can be no "my," no "I."
Help Can Still Be On the Way
Bryant isn't useless or strictly harmful to the Lakers' free-agency plans.
Or rather, he doesn't have to be.
Health will always be an issue beyond his control, but it's one prospective targets could overlook given his well-documented work ethic. Those championship rings still hold some weight, too. Stars are attracted to shiny objects. Stars who already have such shiny objects are attracted to more of those shiny objects.
But Bryant can help out even more by accepting, by understanding why players will come to Los Angeles.
Helping him close out his career on a high note could make the lists of reasons, but it's unlikely to topple everything else. Love, James, Anthony, Bosh, Rajon Rondo and whomever the Lakers chase will join the Purple and Gold to win, to be the face of winning.
Extending a hand, offering them his unconditional support goes a long way. Addressing life after his retirement is even better. Sell them on Durant's 2016 free-agency excursion, on how winning as the top dog in Los Angeles belies winning anywhere else.
On how he needs them to win, and how he's a doorkeeper to an even better era.
Bryant can help. He can help by asking for help, not demanding it or offering it.
By leaving his ego behind, the Lakers' swift rebuild stands a greater chance of becoming reality, lending necessary merit to Bryant's final championship quest.
*Salary information via ShamSports.