Hosted by: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2204289-what-does-kobe-bryant-have-left-to-prove-to-rest-of-the-nba
But Kobe Bryant is Kobe Bryant. Real or make-believe, there would always be something left for him to prove to the Los Angeles Lakers, to his peers and to the NBA at large.
Similar careers are winding down in dissimilar fashion. Tim Duncan has nothing left to prove five championships and 17 years in. Not even the harshest critics are looking for Kevin Garnett to use his 20th season as a clock-contemning renaissance.
Like always, Bryant remains different.
With the end swiftly approaching, and with almost 18 months of atypical hardship in his rearview mirror, Bryant enters the final phase of his career on a different mission, facing a new opponent: the gap between who he once was and who he is now.
Doing More (or the Same) with Less
Physical limits aren’t a concept Bryant has ever accepted or acknowledged. Minutes caps have been foreign. Injuries are annoyances that can be swatted away like gnats. Weaknesses only exist if you admit to them.
Bryant is the same player who ruptured his Achilles, tried to walk it off and then sank two free throws before beginning this long, winding, uncertain road he’s still on. The day he copped to being human—and was serious—would be the day basketball was played on the moon.
That day has come and gone, and the Intergalactic Basketball Association (IBA) still hasn’t been formed.
Battling injury has forced Bryant to prepare for the end; preparing for the end has left him pensive and candid—a process that began prior to 2012-13 but accelerated in the wake of abrupt strife. Where Bryant once wouldn’t be caught visiting reality, he now dwells there exclusively.
“I can say I want to be able to jump as high as I used to. I want to be as fast as I used to,” he said in August, per the Los Angeles Daily News‘ Mark Medina. “But no; I don’t jump as high as I used to,” Bryant said. “That’s okay. I’m not as fast as I used to be. That’s okay, too. I’ll figure out another way to do it.”
Nary a person associated with the Lakers seems to believe Bryant’s proposed reinvention is far-fetched. The team has been assembled to meet both the demands of its dollars-dependent future and the notion that Bryant can still transcend mediocrity.
New head coach Byron Scott told Medina that he expects Bryant to average 20 points per game next season. He also hinted at minutes restrictions. Bryant himself has been studying Paul Pierce and the way in which he’s dominated without all-world athleticism and excessive explosion, according to Sports Illustrated‘s Chris Ballard.
The ground beneath Bryant is corroding. What he’s done for so long, he’s now trying to do differently. He’s trying—whether he admits it or not—to validate his two-year, $48.5 million extension, trying to ensure his twilight is more than lottery berths and injury stints.
Continued relevancy is the mission, and it’s one Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding says Bryant will not lose sight of:
In a broader sense, Bryant is very much determined not to become McGrady…or anything close to him.
First of all, Bryant is resolute about maximizing and relishing the latter years of his career. Anything less would taint the bar he has set for himself so far.
McGrady doesn’t motivate Bryant, per se, yet his presence a year after retiring at age 34 can’t help remind what disappointment could await if Bryant doesn’t adhere to his same standards now that his body and game have changed.
Michael Jordan is another name worth mentioning here. After years off—the second time—he returned to the hardwood, noticeably older, unmistakably worse but still fit to stand alongside the best.
Can Bryant do all this—adjust, adapt, thrive—at 36 years old? Can he score 20 points a night? And, most importantly, can he do that in accordance with minutes restrictions?
Averaging under 30 minutes a night remains possible, especially early on. Playing at a superstar level when being constrained by availability is difficult, and it’s something Bryant has never done nor had to do.
Only nine times since 1983 has a player 36 or older eclipsed the 20-point mark, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Only five qualified players in league history have pumped in 20 points per game while logging under 30 minutes. That is the individual standard Bryant will be held to.
Because he’s so sure of himself, and his team is so sure of him, his new reality bears a striking resemblance to the old one. Bryant is different, as are the circumstances, but he’s still out to prove his star hasn’t yet gone supernova.
Not to be overlooked is the symbolism behind Bryant’s immediate future.
This isn’t just the end of a career. It’s the (hopefully) slow, gradual death of an era. Bryant has always been more than a player. He is a brand by himself.
Built into his brand is an unrivaled complex.
Winning has mattered more than anything to Bryant. Some might find solace and strength in his 2014-15 crusade if he stays healthy and productive. Bryant won’t.
Even as the Lakers have devolved into an incomplete puzzle without any sense as to when they’ll be whole again, Bryant is ever the optimist, fostering hope and belief. On paper the Lakers aren’t constructed to win anything next season, not even their own draft pick, which is top-five protected and owed to the Phoenix Suns.
Care to venture a guess as to how much stock Bryant places in bleak and bulldozed outlooks?
Of course not. He has no vested interest in outside perception.
“But Boozer does this, Jordan Hill does that, Lin adds that,” Bryant told Ballard of his teammates. “If we can figure out that puzzle, we’re going to shock a lot of people.”
And so the quest for a sixth championship continues.
Individual performance won’t mean anything to Bryant if it’s not accompanied by something more. Knowing him, and given all he’s said, he’ll want additional purpose out of his final days. He’ll look to carry the Lakers like has so many times before.
Finding those who are sure that he can won’t be hard. That’s the power of his brand. But now that brand—which will change as Bryant changes—is being tested against a different NBA.
One-man shows aren’t the crux of contenders. Superteams are everywhere. The Western Conference is a powerhouse gauntlet and haven for superstar unions. Bryant is charging forward, basically on his own, facing those he once called—and hopes to still legitimately call—peers, many of whom are now playing together.
Already out to prove his time near the top isn’t over, Bryant’s looking to show his standing can promise the Lakers are fighting for more than a new era that isn’t yet here.
Understanding the Stakes
If Bryant retired today, he could walk away proud of the legacy he’s leaving behind—the 31,700 points..the five championships…the two Finals MVPs…the lone league MVP.
By any measure, Bryant has done enough to secure his place in history. So strong is his standing that anything he doesn’t do can neither taints nor bruises his remarkable on-court reputation. Consistent detractors—both past and present—can even find appreciation for what he’s already done.
Yet once again, because he’s Bryant, there’s still something to be desired. And while many will paint this final fight as Bryant vs. Time, Bryant vs. Conventional Wisdom or Bryant vs. Himself, it’s really Bryant vs. Everyone.
Further shoring up his reputation as one of the most pleasantly illogical stars ever will pit Bryant against players a decade or more younger than him. It pits him against the top talent he’s no longer supposed to be; it places the Lakers—a team that, in theory, he should no longer have to carry—on his shoulders.
Endings are supposed to be sweet. Bryant’s, more so than most, will be a challenge—one in which he must prove the player he is now, differences and all, is fit to rival the one he once was.
Read more NBA news on BleacherReport.com