Do the Los Angeles Lakers Owe Kobe Bryant More in His Final Chapter?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 29, 2014

Dec 14, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) watches his team from the bench during the first half of the game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Time Warner Cable Arena. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

As Kobe Bryant prepares for the mental, physical and emotional rides sure to follow in his 19th NBA season, it cannot be easy for him to shake one haunting question.

Is this it?

That's not a confrontation with mortality either. After a torn Achilles and fractured tibia have twice put him face-to-face with the game's grim reaper over the past 16 months, he knows all too well which side of his hourglass holds the most sand grains.

What Bryant could (and honestly should) have a hard time understanding is how the Los Angeles Lakers have botched the last leg of his journey this badly.

L.A. set a franchise record for losses last season (55) and had its second-lowest winning percentage ever (.329). While they should have a healthy Bryant this time aroundwhich it didn't for all but six games last yearthe Lakers could conceivably be worse.

"The team has gone from not knowing who was its third-best player behind Bryant and Pau Gasol to not knowing who is its second-best player now," wrote Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding. "And Bryant still has to prove that he can stay healthy and produce as a best player must."

Even if things get better, the difference could be marginal. Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal pegged the Lakers for 32 victories, two more than they were given by the ESPN Forecast panel.

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"Those thinking the Lakers will be marginally better than last year are on the right track, because that's what they are: slightly more talented, walking a slippery slope, one injury away from another season-long fiasco, one Kobe Bryant renaissance shy of exceeding minimal expectations," wrote Bleacher Report's Dan Favale.

Jan 7, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) comes off the court after the game against the Dallas Mavericks at the American Airlines Center. The Mavericks defeated the Lakers 110-97. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA

The offensive talent has improved through the offseason arrivals of Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer and rookie Julius Randle, but where is the fortune-reversing needle-mover in that group? Don't go looking for it, because it isn't there.

New coach Byron Scott isn't bringing it with him either. He wants to form a defensive identity, but neither this roster nor his track record suggests that one is coming.

On paper, the Lakers should score a ton of points and give up even more. If that recipe sounds familiar, it should. Those are the same ingredients left over from last season's debacle.

Bryant, of course, will never see the situation as such. Or he won't admit it if he does, at least.

Rather than sulk over swinging and missing on Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James this summer, Bryant has tried taking a page out of the "good job, good effort" kid's book on positivity.

When he says those things, you really want to believe him.

You want to feel like he's excited about getting a veteran like Boozer or a prospect like Randle. You hope that he can help Lin find some of his old magic and stabilize the point guard position Steve Nash's 40-year-old frame won't allow him to play.

You almost get excited for Bryant when you remember the size of that chip on his shoulder and what it might mean for this opportunity in front of him.

"There's a reason 'Braveheart' stands next to 'Gladiator' and 'The Godfather' atop the movie-loving Bryant's all-time list," Ding wrote last summer for the Orange County Register. "Beyond winning or leading his own army, his dream was to lead his underdog army to the ultimate victory."

The concept is enticing. Just try imagining a rejuvenated, refueled Bryant helping the undermanned Lakers slay the dragons of the Western Conference.

Feb 16, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant speaks during a press conference before the 2014 NBA All-Star Game at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

But that picture doesn't last long, does it? It's just not realistic enough for our minds to really bring it to life.

Now, think about what that actually means. Think about the caliber of player we're discussing—and the fact that he isn't good enough to save this squad.

This is Kobe Bean Bryant, or the Black Mamba as he's known inside the lines. This is a generational superstar, one of the greatest players this league has ever seen.

This is a guy who not only patterned his game after Michael Jordan's, but also built one of the very few resumes capable of standing toe-to-toe with his.

This is one of the only names that can be mentioned in the same breath as Jordan's without the speaker getting laughed out of the room. Heck, Jordan himself has linked the two together, via author Roland Lazenby:

"Kobe is the only guy with the will and the skill to even come close," wrote NBC Sports' Kurt Helin. "Kobe and Jordan are cut from the same cloth, both driven to compete, to win, to do whatever it takes to get there. Their will and drive stood out in the ultra-competitive NBA. There will not be many more like them."

The Lakers need to appreciate the time they have left with Bryant, and handing him a lifetime achievement award in the form of a two-year, $48.5 million contract extension isn't nearly enough. Not even if he might say it is:

This isn't about money.

It's about preserving Bryant's identity.

His reality is changing. His lift isn't the same, and neither is his place in this profession. He's trying his best to adjust on the fly, to learn how to exist inside a kingdom he used to claim.

It isn't likely Bryant will return to his past production levels, but he could find his way somewhere close.

Before suffering that torn Achilles—after logging 43.5 minutes a night over a 10-game stretch for this franchise at age 34—he was putting up 27.3 points, 6.0 assists and 5.3 rebounds. He isn't as far removed from his elite past as his prolonged absence has made it seem.

But his days of being that vicious, venomous Mamba as we know him are over. Because what separated him from his peers wasn't statistics, success or star power.

It was his perpetually unquenched competitive thirst, now a wasted gift for a team with a best-case scenario that stops short of a playoff berth.

Mar 6, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) is congratulated by guard Steve Nash (10) after a basket during the second half at the New Orleans Arena. Los Angeles defeated New Orleans 108-102. Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGi

Bryant has given the Lakers everything: 1,245 games (25th in NBA history), 45,567 minutes (13th) and 31,700 points (fourth). He's the only player among the league's top-nine scoring leaders to have never worn a different jersey.

His loyalty has been rewarded with endless stacks of cash, complementary supporting casts and, for a long time, one of the loudest voices inside the organization.

The Lakers are moving forward now, only Bryant's reign hasn't ended. He'll close out one of the finest careers in NBA history by spending the next two seasons as a walking relic, a legendary competitor with no chance to compete.

For everything he has given this organization, this league and this sport as a whole, he deserved a far better fate than this.

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