While rehabbing his torn Achilles, getting ready to play in his 18th season, and having only the NBA scoring record to chip away at this year, it should come as no surprise that Kobe Bryant is already looking ahead to the summer of 2014. Of course, we have no proof of this, but why would we? Anyone who believes Kobe would publically admit defeat, at any point, has not followed this man’s career–he has too much pride and competitiveness to ever reveal that he does not believe his team can win it all. Simply put: Kobe Bryant is an alpha-male, and alpha-males tend to have enough self-confidence to supply every living beta on Earth.
Having said all this, Kobe is not dumb. He knows that his time is running out. He knows he’s facing an injury that would end the careers, let alone the productivity, of almost any player his age. He knows the third best player on the current Lakers roster after himself and Pau Gasol is either a soon-to-be 40-year old point guard, who is obviously breaking down, or a 28 year-old NBA journeyman on his 4th team in 7 years by the nickname of Swaggy P.
Once again: Kobe Bryant is not dumb. He understands that even if he were 100% healthy by opening night, this team as currently formulated has absolutely no chance of winning anything this year, other than a first round exit or a couple extra ping pong balls.
So the question becomes, what is Kobe’s mindset going into this season? Let’s assume he fully recovers from his Achilles injury and returns to the team around Christmas. The season would be about a quarter of the way through and the Lakers will most likely have a below .500 record. Kobe will join the team and they will win a few games they should have lost, due to the confidence builder of having one of the greatest players of all-time back on the team. Regardless, the team will flutter down the standings and finish around the 9th or 10th seed in the Western Conference (otherwise known as Basketball Purgatory: too good to be a lottery team, not good enough to be a contender).
Now what? Will the Lakers’ front office make a blockbuster trade or free agent signing like they did under Dr. Jerry Buss? Or, will they stand pat and try to rebuild via the draft and acquire assets like other teams in the league? The better question is how does this affect the decision of Kobe, who will become a free agent once this season is over? Apparently, Kobe is willing to take a pay cut if it means the team will sign a big name free agent, or two, such as Carmelo Anthony (possible) or LeBron James (near impossible).
But what if they don’t? What if Jim Buss decides he wants to stay under the luxury tax and build this team through draft picks and expiring contracts? Will Kobe stick around and watch the chances of his career ending without another title fade away faster than Steve Nash’s game? (Sorry, I had to). The answer is not just no, but hell no. Kobe may love the Lakers and all the fans, but he loves two things even more: his legacy and winning. Two things that are intertwined and completely dependent on one another. You cannot have a supreme legacy and not win. There’s a reason Jerry West aka Mr. Clutch aka The Logo is seldom brought up in discussions of who is the best of all-time (the usual suspects are MJ, Russell, Magic, and Bird). It’s because he went to nine NBA Finals and only won once.
Should Lakers fans be upset if Kobe ultimately leaves to join forces with another star, because the Lakers just don’t have the talent to compete for a title? Absolutely not. Kobe has worked his ass off for 18 years with this franchise with the only goal being to win championships. His mindset will ultimately always be about winning, regardless of where that takes place. Kobe Bryant understands that 10, 20, 30 years from now the only number that will mean anything to his legacy will be the amount of championships he won.