NBA PM: The End is Near for Kobe Bryant
The notion of Kobe Bryant sitting out for the Los Angeles Lakers’ final stretch was laughable. Even after Bryant was diagnosed with a severely sprained ankle and ruled out indefinitely by the team’s medical staff, nobody thought he would be sidelined for a significant period of time as the Lakers fight for one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference. That’s because Bryant has developed a reputation as one of the toughest players in the NBA. Regardless of injury or illness, he doesn’t miss games. He’s the epitome of durable and reliable. History has shown that if Bryant can function, he’ll likely take the court.
However, there will come a time in the near future when Bryant won’t be playing, even though he’ll be more than capable of doing so. The 34-year-old has made it clear that he’s going to retire in the next few years, even though he’s still one of the best players in the NBA.
While some athletes stick around until they are a shell of themselves and no longer wanted, Bryant won’t go out like that. He doesn’t want to tarnish his legacy by becoming a bench player or signing for the veteran’s minimum. That kind of retirement, Bryant says, “is not pretty.” His exit will be the kind that leaves fans wondering why he walked away so soon and wishing he’d return.
Even though Bryant is still one of the most productive players in the league – averaging 27.5 points, 5.8 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 1.3 steals through 66 games – he has said that he’ll only play “two years max” after this season. Bryant is the first to admit that his career is coming to an end.
“It’s just common sense that the end is much closer than the beginning,” Bryant told Michael Wilbon of ESPN. “I’m not fooling myself thinking I’ll play another five to 10 years. I mean, that’s just crazy. By NBA years I am [old]. Thirty four, not being in the NBA, is still young. Thirty four, being in the NBA for 17 years, is a little different.”
There’s a long list of superstar athletes who have struggled to walk away from the game that they dominated for most of their life. However, Bryant isn’t dreading his retirement. He seems to be welcoming it and looking forward to the next chapter of his life. Many athletes say that when in actuality they’re miserable, but Bryant comes off as believable.
“I enjoy hearing people say I won’t be able retire gracefully,” Bryant said with a laugh. “I enjoy that challenge. I hear that a lot. I’m so stubborn and competitive, it makes me want to retire just so I can prove to them that I can retire gracefully. I’m going to win at something, whether it’s retiring gracefully or defeating father time. I’m going to win at one of those things.”
Bryant is still capable of taking over games, as evidenced by his 41-point performance against the Toronto Raptors last week, in which he forced overtime with a trio of clutch, contested three-pointers. If that wasn’t enough proof, consider the fact that he has scored 30 or more points in eight of his last 11 games. While Bryant can still put on a show, he admits that as he gets older he has to do different things to continue playing at that high level.
“I think the biggest thing for me has been the diet,” Bryant said. “That’s always been something I’ve never had to concern myself with too much. Once you get up in age, you have to make adjustments. It becomes hard. It was on my own. You want to continue to play at an elite level, you have to make sacrifices. That’s one of them. But it’s hard to do it because you’re used to eating whatever you want to eat for 32 years of your life – the usual stuff like the burgers and the pizza all the time and the sodas. I can’t remember the last time I had a soda. It’s just certain things you have to tailor and balance.
“I do quite a bit of recovery, stretching and modalities. For lack of a better term, it’s chiropractic therapy. I have to do quite a bit of that. I go home, run around with my kids as much as possible because they don’t know. They expect you to still go home and be the human jungle gym. You rest up some more and get ready for the game in the morning. It’s tough, but you got to do it.”
Bryant realizes that he’s running out of opportunities to further his legacy and add championship rings to his collection. Most young players believe they are invincible and have a ‘there’s always next year’ mentality. However, for a player in his mid-30s, there’s a sense of urgency.
“Steve [Nash] knows,” Bryant said. “He and I both being in the league for so long, I think he understands the concept of windows getting closed. You know what I mean? And time being short. The urgency is there. For younger players like Dwight [Howard], it’s tough to understand that. You feel like your career is endless and you have an endless amount of opportunities in front of you.”
That’s no longer the case for Bryant. He can’t put off success for later, which is why he’s grown frustrated with the Lakers’ struggles at times and why he doesn’t approach this season with much patience. In Los Angeles, it’s always championship or bust, but even more so with this veteran team.
“When you come here it takes awhile to get used to, but then you understand this is what the situation is; we have to win the whole thing or not even bother showing up,” Bryant said. “Here, there’s no middle ground. Winning is the only thing. There’s no such thing about being excited about finishing second in the Finals. That means you’re the first loser. You have to win it all or your season is a failure.”
The Lakers have been playing some of their best basketball of the season in recent weeks. For most of the year, they’ve been on the outside looking in at the West’s playoff picture, but they’re currently in eighth place after winning nine of their last 12 games. Bryant refers to this campaign as “a season of adjustments” since L.A. has had to deal with so many changes, from coaching to personnel. The Lakers are on their third head coach this season and each of their stars has been injured at some point.
“I just feel good about how we’re playing and focusing on each game,” Bryant said. “That’s where my mind is. Our mind is on the next game, but it feels pretty good to be back within striking distance.
“I certainly didn’t envision being this doggone tired at this point of the season and having to work this hard. It is what it is. We didn’t picture losing our head coach early into the season, having Steve go down with a freak fracture in his leg in the second game of the season, Pau [Gasol] being out. We never envisioned it. The biggest part is we stuck together through all the ups and downs and now we’re playing pretty good basketball.”
When Bryant does decide to retire, the NBA will be in good hands with LeBron James and Kevin Durant in their prime. James, the three-time NBA MVP and defending champion, is now considered the best player in the league. That’s a label that Bryant has held for years, so how does that make him feel?
“I enjoy it,” Bryant said with a grin. “I think it’s fun for me. When I first came into the league, I came in with Michael [Jordan] and Clyde [Drexler] and [John] Stockton and all those players. To see the generations I’ve seen from the Penny Hardaway era to the [Allen] Iverson era to the [Tracy] McGrady era, and so on and so forth. I think this is my third decade, third generation of players that I’ve seen come and go. It’s fun for me to compete against this younger generation. It’s enjoyable. I absolutely love LeBron. I really do. I think he has a commitment to be great. He really, really works hard at it. He’s improved his game tremendously.”
Does Bryant resent the fact that he’s no longer considered the best player in the league?
“Resentment? Why would there be?” Bryant asked. “Well, I’ve seen that happen with other players that have come before me where there’s a public chatter about who is better and it creates some type of friction, but I’ve never played for that. I’ve never played for the attention or the notoriety. I’ve played for one thing, and that’s results. Winning. From that perspective, I’m able to sit back and appreciate the talents of LeBron or KD and so on.”
Bryant is content with the illustrious career that he’s had. He has a packed trophy case, with five championships, two Olympic gold medals, 15 All-Star appearances, two scoring titles and an MVP award He has also etched his name into the NBA’s record book quite a few times. While he admits that his career will come to an end soon, don’t mistake his self-awareness for complacency. He’s realistic about where he’s at in his life, but don’t get him wrong, he still wants to be fitted for another ring or two before all is said and done.
“[I] just gotta keep it going, keep trucking,” Bryant said. “Once the playoffs come around, let’s get it on.”
A Look at the Top D-League Prospects
This season, 26 D-League players have been called up by NBA teams, including eight players in March.
DaJuan Summers (Los Angeles Clippers), Chris Wright (Dallas Mavericks), Travis Leslie (Utah Jazz), Maalik Wayns (Los Angeles Clippers), Malcolm Thomas (Golden State Warriors), Terrel Harris (New Orleans Hornets), Shelvin Mack (Atlanta Hawks) and Henry Sims (New Orleans Hornets) were all called up this month. Other players, such as Mike James (Dallas Mavericks) and Chris Johnson (Minnesota Timberwolves), have become significant role players after beginning the season in the D-League.
Rather than signing veteran free agents who haven’t been on a roster all season, teams are turning to D-League players to bolster their roster. Teams have until April 17 to sign players who will be eligible for the first round of the postseason. Here are some of the top D-League players at each position, who may be called up at some point in the next month.
Guards: Delonte West, Kris Joseph, Josh Selby, Courtney Fortson, Jerel McNeal, Andrew Goudelock, Christian Eyenga, Lazar Hayward, Justin Dentmon, Chris Roberts, Ben Uzoh, Sean Singletary, Ron Howard, Darington Hobson
Forwards: D.J. Kennedy, Samardo Samuels, Demetris Nichols, Willie Reed, Rick Jackson, Arinze Onuaku, Rasual Butler, Damion James, Luke Harangody, Micah Downs, JaMychal Green, James Mays
Centers: Jerome Jordan, Hassan Whiteside, Vernon Macklin, Hilton Armstrong, Keith Benson, Brian Butch, Mickell Gladness, Solomon Alabi, Jarrid Famous, Augustus Gilchrist
The Best NBA Players At Every Position
This week, HOOPSWORLD took a look at the best NBA players at each position. We asked several of our writers to rank the best point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, power forwards and centers.
The final article in the series ran today so all of the rankings are in.
Our All-HOOPSWORLD First Team is Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, LaMarcus Aldridge and Dwight Howard.
Our All-HOOPSWORLD Second Team is Tony Parker, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan and Marc Gasol.
Our All-HOOPSWORLD Third Team is Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, David Lee and Tyson Chandler.
Leave a comment on each article with your opinion of the writer’s rankings.