Kobe Bryant’s legacy - including whether he'll be remembered as the greatest player in the storied history of the Los Angeles Lakers - could take an interesting turn during the franchise's upcoming rebuild.
He has long been in the discussion for greatest Laker of all time with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. While Abdul-Jabbar is perhaps the greatest player in the history of basketball, the first six years of Abdul-Jabbar’s career were spent with the Milwaukee Bucks.
That does not necessarily disqualify Abdul-Jabbar from the Lakers discussion, but it allows Johnson to hold a slight edge. Johnson immediately took over Los Angeles as a rookie by helping the Lakers win a title in 1979-80.
What’s more, Johnson was at the heart of it all when the Purple and Gold finally vanquished a Boston Celtics team in the 1985 NBA Finals after years of torment.
Just remember, it was Johnson who prevailed, and that, coupled with his five titles, made him in the minds of many the greatest Laker ever. Johnson is Bryant’s biggest adversary, but the future Hall of Fame 2-guard has a fairly compelling set of accolades as well.
Bryant is one of the most successful players of his generation by virtue of his five championship rings, league MVP trophy and two Finals MVPs. In addition, he’s taken the All-Star Game MVP award home on four occasions.
An argument could be made that Bryant has set the standard of excellence for current superstars. However, it’s entirely possible L.A.’s projected rebuild might take away some of his shine, especially in comparison to Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar.
Prior to discussing what lies ahead, let’s take a moment to reflect on the impacts of this season vis-a-vis Bryant’s resume.
The Season from Hell
The 2013-14 campaign will go down as a failure on Bryant’s curriculum.
Prior to the start of the season, Bryant set the franchise back in the offseason by driving away Dwight Howard based on comments Antawn Jamison shared with Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com. Bryant loved to monopolize the offense, something that did not sit too well with Howard.
Howard obviously deserves some blame for the failed relationship for not meeting Bryant halfway, but Bryant is still guilty of not making his teammate feel welcomed enough. Chasing away one of the best centers in the league has to be a lowlight of Bryant’s career.
After all, Kobe Bean and Shaquille O’Neal went through a similar situation, which prompted O’Neal to leave the franchise. The Lakers were forced to rebuild.
Bryant has watched All-Star centers leave his side for greener pastures twice, and the Lakers have basically crumbled both times. In 2004-05, L.A. won 34 games. This year, it is on pace to win 27.
Without a great player like Howard to hold the fort this season, the Lakers struggled a bit to stay afloat while Bryant rehabbed an Achilles tear. He rejoined the Lakers in December and appeared in six games, but Bryant then fractured his knee and was subsequently shelved for the season.
It’s hard to imagine Johnson driving away Abdul-Jabbar in the same fashion that Bryant has done with his teammates. Great players should want to play alongside the very best, not flee from them.
Also, whether fair or not, Bryant’s mythology took a big hit this season. A player who was once upon a time thought of as indestructible showed clear signs of basketball mortality. Bryant has consistently laughed in the face of obstacles and conquered them, which led many to believe he would do so again.
Instead, Bryant will basically miss the season, and he essentially forced the relocation of a superstar who could have helped Los Angeles to a respectable record.
Those last two facts certainly hurt Bryant's “candidacy” for greatest Laker ever. The man they call the Black Mamba has had a hand in two of the worst seasons in Lakers history (2004-05 and this season).
Rebuilds Are Painful
The rebuilding years aren’t going to be kind to Bryant’s legacy.
Interestingly enough, one could say he is well aware of this. As Phil Jackson shared with Arash Marzaki of ESPNLosAngeles, Bryant wishes to match Michael Jordan, and being part of a team that drifts to the bottom of the standings certainly makes that goal difficult to attain.
It appears Bryant understands this based on comments he shared with ESPN Los Angeles’ Dave McMenamin:
How can I be satisfied with it? We’re like 100 games under .500. I can’t be satisfied with that at all. This is not what we stand for. This is not what we play for. A lot of times it’s hard to understand that message if you’re not a diehard Laker fan.
It’s hard to really understand where we’re coming from and what we’re accustomed to, which is playing for championships and everything else is a complete failure. That’s just how it is. That’s how it was explained to me by Jerry (West) and all the other great Lakers who have played here and that’s how I grew up thinking. So that’s just how it is.
Remember, Bryant has missed the postseason before and spent two years of his prime leading the Lake Show to low playoff seeds, only to be eliminated in the first round.
That technically puts him on equal footing with Magic Johnson in terms of early playoff exits, but Johnson never missed the postseason.
Hence, missing the playoffs again next season and beyond is simply unacceptable to Bryant, based on additional information he provided to McMenamin:
It’s my job to go out there on the court and perform. No excuses for it. Right? You got to get things done. It’s the same thing with the front office. The same expectations they have of me when I perform on the court is the same expectations I have for them up there. You got to be able to figure out a way to do both.
There is no way around it, a rebuilding season unquestionably knocks down Bryant in the hierarchy of all-time Lakers greats.
To be honest, Bryant’s case for greatest Laker ever was never a strong one. The one thing he had over his predecessors was his longevity with the franchise.
That has allowed Bryant to amass gaudy numbers and sit atop the Lakers leaderboard in numerous statistical categories such as points, minutes, steals field goals and field-goal attempts, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Despite the length of his career, Bryant’s credentials fall short of Johnson’s.
Indeed, Johnson has tripled Kobe’s league MVP award count and leads Bryant in Finals MVPs (three to two). It’s worth noting that Magic played 12 seasons, while Bryant will be playing in his 18th when 2014-15 tips off.
Bryant’s best chance to overtake Johnson was by sheer volume of numbers and accomplishments. The numbers will certainly be there, but the amount of failures will increase with a second rebuilding period attached to Bryant.
Keep in mind, the Lakers will be looking to serve their own interests in the next few seasons and not Bryant’s. Over at ESPN’s TrueHoop blog, Andy Kamenetzky explains:
Painful as these losses have been, another underwhelming season might be necessary to create a sustainable, bright future.
For the first time in eons, the Lakers are in position to build from the ground up, and whatever critical designs are in place can’t be altered to placate a 36-year-old player who has more than 54,000 career minutes played (playoffs included) and is coming off consecutive significant injuries. Even if that player happens to be Kobe Bryant.
L.A.’s potential unwillingness to construct a playoff team around Bryant speaks volumes about what the front office thinks of him. The Lakers would rather start over from scratch and live with the consequences.
If that hardly sounds like a way to treat the greatest Laker ever, it’s because Bryant is not fit for the title. The rebuild will give Bryant an opportunity to accumulate “empty” numbers, but it will also serve to remind everyone that he is no Magic.