Kobe Bryant is coming off his fifth championship season, and has already cemented his legacy as one of the most prolific players in NBA history. This year, with the affects of age settling in, Kobe begins on the most difficult journey a player who has impacted the game like he has must travel. Kobe must now decide whether remaining relevant for the remainder of his career is worth the cost of the alpha-male psyche which defined the prime of his career.
Kobe has already proven a willingness to change the physical aspects of his game, learning a new offensive strategy last year focused more on backing defenders into the post than beating them off the ball. This shift allowed Kobe to compensate for the athletic deterioration stemming from age and gave him one more year of individual dominance. This season Kobe will once again be staring at a crossroads in his career but unlike the last, his transformation must be psychological in order to become the leader his team needs.
Kobe is now entering the winter of a long and prolific career, but winter, for him, presents not a struggle but an opportunity. For Kobe to remain relevant going forward he must shift roles and allow the Lakers offense to rely on Pau Gasol as their first option which would relegate Kobe to a position he has not seen since the days of Shaquille O’Neal. For a shift of such magnitude to occur Kobe must readily relinquish the need to control the Lakers destiny which has dominated the post-Shaq Lakers.
Throughout his career Kobe has matured into one of the biggest offensive threats in the NBA. He teamed with Shaq to win three titles in his early career, carried otherwise poor Lakers teams upon Shaq’s departure and later carried his team to the NBA Finals in each of the past three years, winning two championships.
Kobe has proven time and again his relentless aggressiveness in the face of competition, but much like Dr. Jeckyll had Mr. Hyde there have been repercussions for such passion. Kobe’s Achilles Heel manifests itself in a lack of selflessness in the face of pressure or defeat. While his Game 7 performance (6-24 from the field with 2 assists) was enough to win the championship, through the compensation of his teammates, it is unlikely this individual style will allow Kobe and the Lakers to stay competitive moving forward.
Kobe has spent his career giving argument to his being one of the best to ever play the game and through his career his sheer ability has transcended the negative aspects derived from the individualistic tendencies he has struggled with. Now in his fifteenth season with the Lakers, and coming off a third knee surgery, it is almost certain he no longer possesses the physical prowess to play the game which once defined his career.
There are now two directions the Lakers could potentially take moving forward. If Kobe attempts once again to force his will as the alpha-dog the Lakers may still make the playoffs, but it is safe to say such a style will move them toward the average, relieving them of the crown worn by champions.
It is the other direction that should scare everyone in the Western Conference. If Kobe is willing to shift focus of the Lakers’ offense to Pau Gasol, one of the best big-men in the league, we could see the most multi-dimensional team in the league. Gasol is an amazing passer from the forward and center position. Funneling the offense through him will rely on offensive productivity of the Lakers as a team and while this means a diminished role for Kobe, opening up the floor will create easier scoring opportunities.
The question we will see the Lakers attempting to answer throughout the regular season is whether Kobe is ready to accept this new role.
In a profession based on such physicality as basketball there should be within our greatest athletes the knowledge of the immediacy of change which accompanies age. What if that lack of self-awareness, however, is what separates the great outliers from those who encompass the average? Is it not unlike the trade-offs artists or musicians, those who spent a lifetime striving to achieve in such abstract worlds, must make in order to be immortalized in greatness?
The world is not lacking in great athletes and in order to play in the NBA one must hit the genetic lottery of height, strength and speed. So millions are genetically whittled into thousands and those who then couple genetics with ability make up the landscape of the NBA. Moving further it could be assumed, all things being equal (genetics and ability), it is the difference in an athlete’s mentality which separates the outliers who we consider among the greatest to those content within the average. Robertson, Jordan, Russell, Magic, Bird etc. possessed within themselves the passion to become the best and by doing so changed the way we look at basketball.
While artists and musicians perfect a more abstract craft it is this same drive that separates the likes of The Rolling Stones or Martin Scorsese as outliers in their respective professions. However, the drive to achieve at such a high level mutates one’s mental stability because such singularity of desire must come at the cost of the well-roundedness achieved by the societal average of the time.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are accredited with some of the most outlandish and uncompromising music of their generation. While their music pushed the boundaries of acceptability of subject matter in pop culture of their time, it came at the dangerous cost of sobriety. It seemed their willingness to ingest enough narcotics to produce catatonia in most human beings outlined the lifestyle necessary for them to create the music they were producing during their pinnacle. The Stones finally sobered up (to an extent), but it cost them the wildness that dominated their music during the height of their pinnacle. While they still tour today, the impact they created during their peak was far to firmly rooted in their outlandish lifestyle and thusly diminished upon personal maturity.
During his amazing reign Martin Scorsese created films highlighted by the richness and depth of his character studies. There was never a need for much in the way of plot as long as his passion to create protagonists out of mentally unstable war heros, alcoholic boxers or mobsters remained. One day Scorsese reached his peak at which time the comforts of money and age began to wear away at this need. When he decided to replace the rawness of his early days with the intellectualism we associate with his later films he remained relevant far after his apex had come and gone.
Kobe Bryant has reached the top of the mountain, the younger ranks have matured and he no longer possesses the ability to dominate as he once did. The decisions he makes in the next two years, whether to subscribe to a different, team oriented game or continue as a one-man army, could affect the next half-decade for the Lakers. If he is willing to surrender control of his team by becoming a secondary option than the Lakers will have an offensive juggernaut able to compete with anyone in the NBA even into Kobe’s late thirties. However, just as easily Kobe could lose this struggle, refuse to change and watch his prominence quickly dwindle into irrelevance.
Only time will tell.