Kobe's Latest Setback Offers Lakers Chance to Finally Move Out of His Shadow

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterJanuary 23, 2015

Harry How/Getty Images

It is not the east, and Kobe is not the sun.

As glorious as it was for the Los Angeles Lakers, the era is over. And it's now clear how much the franchise has to cease revolving around Kobe Bryant.

An actual bright side to the bad news of yet another Bryant injury setback can exist. His torn rotator cuff has to be the last straw in the Lakers' complete devotion to No. 24 and a clear signal that the future is now.

That doesn't mean abandoning their longtime superstar in what should still be a meaningful farewell next season or even having regrets over giving him the league's richest salary in his latest contract extension (two years, $48.5 million).

Jan 21, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) against the New Orleans Pelicans during the first quarter of a game at the Smoothie King Center. The Pelicans defeated the Lakers 96-80. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA T
USA TODAY Sports

The Lakers needed to hold on to Bryant for reasons concerning both business and loyalty. And he did rehab back against tremendous historical indicators to become a top player again, albeit an erratic one. What's clear now is that his body isn't up to the burden anymore, and the transition needs to start now away from Bryant as the team's top priority to a secondary consideration.

It's a tough thing to do, no doubt. First, even if this injury requires another surgery on his shooting shoulder, Bryant isn't going to go down without a fight. He's going to want to go out on his terms, and the Lakers are going to be tempted to indulge him again.

It seems impossible to think that Bryant could mean even more to the organization than quantifiable championships or points, but he does. His 19 seasons with the franchise are five more than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West, six more than Magic Johnson and Derek Fisher.

Bryant is a link to everything in that illustrious past because of how many paths he has crossed.

Ric Francis/Associated Press

When the Lakers come home to play Sunday against the Houston Rockets, they'll be wearing the Sunday white uniform introduced to honor Chick Hearn when he died in 2002—the Sunday white uniform made most memorable by Bryant scoring 81 points in it.

An even greater bond that Bryant represents: the one between Jerry Buss and his children as the Lakers ownership. Bryant is the star Jerry Buss believed in and banked on, an ongoing icon of Jerry's genius, so treating Kobe like a king in a sense allows the Buss family to honor the great patriarch.

The time has come, however, to reprioritize.   

We placed blame on Byron Scott two months ago for his unhealthy obsession with Bryant at the expense of developing the team, but no one in the front office or ownership came out to even question that strategy. The Lakers brass, likewise, wanted to trust that Bryant could carry the usual load and live up to the legend, because it's the easy way out to cling to that hope while waiting for some other free agents to come.

Even in what could be Bryant's final game of this season, the emphasis on him was blatant. Rather than have him come back into Wednesday night's loss to the Pelicans and just let him play left-handed, these Lakers still ran the entire offense through him while he played left-handed.

The result was just as blatant in showing that Bryant is not what he once was. Of course, the Lakers don't have many good options besides Bryant, but it's a fair argument that Scott will learn more about building the team's future in running plays for Nick Young or letting Jeremy Lin attack in the pick-and-roll game for which he's made.

The obvious positive is that if Bryant, as expected, doesn't play again this season, it's a way for the Lakers to lose enough that they keep that 2015 first-round pick. If not in the top five, the pick goes to Phoenix. That's a start, but the Lakers have to make this about more than that.

After giving Kobe Bryant heavy minutes early in the season, Byron Scott had limited the star's court time in recent weeks.
After giving Kobe Bryant heavy minutes early in the season, Byron Scott had limited the star's court time in recent weeks.Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

There is a very possible negative at work here in another Bryant injury creating more instability with the Lakers. It is crucial for the club to succeed in 2015 free agency, especially to lay some part of a foundation to show 2016 free agents what is here, and now it’s uncertain just how much Bryant will or how well he could play next season.

That's all the more reason why the Lakers need to stress that everything is now first about the next generation, second about Bryant. It has to be part of the free-agent sales pitch, and perhaps those listening will actually believe it now that Bryant looks more broken down than unconquerable.

This is an opportunity for the Lakers to gain immediate clarity.

As beloved as Bryant is and forever will be, everyone in and out of the organization can now understand: His body just won't let him be Kobe anymore.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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