Working off two serious injuries, the 36-year-old Bryant—who was drafted 13th overall—should be a relic of yesteryear, a living, breathing keepsake basketball brainiacs remember fondly as they try to reconcile the past with the present. Instead, he is an active symbol whose defiant displays are, for the time being, still bridging the gap between two, maybe three, different eras of basketball.
How much longer he'll be able to function as this time-thwarting token remains unclear. A lot could go wrong between now and when Bryant retires.
When that time comes—forcibly or voluntarily—that's it. Whenever Bryant walks or limps away, the 1996 draft's star power goes with him.
It wasn't always this way. It wasn't even supposed to be this way. Not yet, at least.
Steve Nash (No. 15 overall) approached the 2014-15 campaign with every intention of playing at least one more year. It was both fitting and ironic that he and Bryant would try to battle Father Time together. But then their fight together abruptly ended.
Days ahead of the regular season, Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding brought word that a 40-year-old Nash would miss the entire year due to "recurring nerve damage" in his back. This latest setback is likely a career-ender since Nash has appeared in just 65 games over the last two seasons and even hinted at 2014-15 being his swan song.
If this is, in fact, it for Nash, it's an unbecoming end for one of the game's all-time greats. He leaves on a low note and without a championship but having done enough to ensure his place in the history books. The two-time MVP ranks third all-time in assists handed out, behind only Jason Kidd and John Stockton, and fourth in effective field-goal percentage—which takes into account two- and three-pointers—among anyone who attempted at least 10,000 career shots. He also piloted some of the most potent offenses ever while with the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks.
Ray Allen (No. 5 overall), another 1996 draftee, meanwhile, continues to watch 2014-15 unfold from home. He has yet to officially retire, but he hasn't signed with another team either. If he returns, it will be later in the season and likely for a championship contender.
Jermaine O'Neal (No. 17 overall) is in a (slightly) similar boat, having yet to retire or find another home. Derek Fisher (No. 24 overall) traded in his role player-ing for a suit and tie and the right to coach the New York Knicks. He walked away with five rings from his time with the Los Angeles Lakers and scores of crunch-time heroics while having appeared in more playoff games than anyone else in league history (for now).
Most others from that preeminent pool of talent are long gone.
Allen Iverson (No. 1 overall) shined with the Philadelphia 76ers and hasn't played in the NBA since 2009-10. Pound for pound the greatest player to walk the hardwood, he ranks 22nd on the all-time scoring list, having tallied 24,368 points for his career. Though he failed to win a title, he averaged 29.7 points through 71 postseason games, second to only Michael Jordan's 33.4.
Peja Stojakovic (No. 14 overall) hasn't played since 2010-11. Like Allen, he was a shooter ahead of his time, torching opponents from deep, draining three-pointers long before it was a league-wide custom. He remains the only player in NBA history to retire averaging at least 17 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while connecting on 40 percent of his deep balls. He's also a memento from a time when Sacramento Kings basketball and the postseason weren't mutually exclusive entities.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas (No. 20 overall) retired following the 2010-11 campaign as well. While not a statistical powerhouse, he was revered for his work ethic with the Cleveland Cavaliers and is still one of only 25 players to register at least 10,000 points, 6,100 rebounds and 1,300 blocks for his career.
Stephon Marbury (No. 4 overall) hasn't logged a minute at the NBA level in more than five years. Although he was far from the ideal talent and left more questions than he did answers in his wake, he's one of only 10 players to eclipse 16,000 points, 2,500 rebounds, 6,000 assists and 1,000 steals, an exclusive list that also includes Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, Scottie Pippen, Isiah Thomas, Gary Payton, Kidd and Stockton.
All of the aforementioned names are gone.
Everyone else, too.
Shareef Abdur-Rahim (No. 3 overall)?
Gone since 2007-08.
Marcus Camby (No. 2 overall)?
Hasn't played since 2012-13.
Antoine Walker (No. 6 overall)?
Six-plus years removed from the NBA.
The draft that proved a hotbed for All-Stars and future Hall of Famers is on life support, survived by Bryant and him alone, a dispiriting reality that attests to his longevity, individual drive and ability to remain relevant.
For as much as Bryant has changed, he's still the same. His game is different, punctuated by fewer rim-rocking displays, but the will of this five-time champion and future Hall of Famer is alive.
After rupturing his Achilles tendon in April 2013 and appearing in just six games last year, Bryant began 2014-15 facing slews of doubters and skeptics, seemingly having to prove he wasn't about to follow in the footsteps of Nash. He has responded in kind, like only he can, reminding the world that, as illogical as it seems, his body still has plenty of fight left.
Through the first four games of the season, Bryant is averaging 24.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals. His field-goal percentage is underwhelming (41.2 percent) and his three-point touch virtually nonexistent (25 percent). But at this rate, he'll become just the second 36-year-old to ever average at least 24 points per game. Karl Malone was the first. He's also logging 32 minutes a night thus far, something only 22 others have done after their 35th birthday.
As The New York Times' Billy Witz underscored, he is nowhere near the same player he was, yet he has still managed to remain a productive contradiction:
Bryant can no longer carry a team, not the way he once might have been able to do over 82 games or even attempted to do when the Lakers lost by 18 to Houston and 20 to Phoenix to open the season. But on Friday, Bryant revealed how he can still influence a team — and a game.
He whipped passes out of double teams. He guarded Paul. He blew past Barnes for a reverse dunk and later sold him on a pump fake. He stole the ball from Blake Griffin in transition. He sank a fadeaway 3-pointer in the corner over the shot blocker DeAndre Jordan and suckered him with a highlight reel pass fake before banking in a layup. He threw in a reverse lay in. And he kicked a pass out to Wayne Ellington, whose 3-pointer tied the score for the last time.
Not one aspect of Bryant's current performance can go unnoticed. The Lakers' outlook is bleak. They'll contend for the worst record in the Western Conference as they cope with injuries (Julius Randle) and an obviously flawed offensive model that relies too heavily on Bryant making something out of nothing like it's 2004.
But Bryant is still producing, still fighting, still playing. No one else from his draft class can say the same. Maybe Allen or even Nash eventually will. Right now, there is only Bryant, who has never ceded control of his career to time or indecision or injury.
"I've enjoyed a great amount of success here," Bryant told Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears when asked about leaving Los Angeles. "You can't just enjoy the successful times and then run away from the bad ones. No, I don't even think about [departing]. I'm a Laker."
More importantly, he is (still) an NBA player. The games mean something different to the Lakers; they mean something less. But the circumstances will never overshadow the fact that he's still playing.
Bryant is the last man standing from that 1996 class. He's the exception to a rule—time—that has claimed the career of everyone else he began his incredible journey with.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise cited.