And nothing has changed.
You've got to give Kobe this: He's consistently inconsistent. There's just no reading the man.
On the one hand, he's one of, if not the most fiercely competitive player in the league. Someone you could envision playing until his legs fall off or the Los Angeles Lakers stop signing his checks. On the other, he's 34, has logged the 12th-most minutes in NBA history and has played through more injuries than Shaquille O'Neal and Howard have missed free throws. Combined.
Could Bryant's body realistically hold up for another five years? Will he really play that much longer, or even close to it?
Before you answer, remember that Kobe isn't about to continue his career in a Jason Kidd-like or even Michael Jordan-esque capacity. He's not going to come off the bench or be anything less than Ice Mamba-ish if he continues to play. He's too proud, too conscious of his legacy and standing in the league. This is the same player who remained steadfast in his declaration that the Lakers were still his team, three perennial All-Star teammates be damned.
Knowing this, we must then ask ourselves: Can Bryant play at a high level for the next five years?
His refusal to yield to injuries of any kind suggests no. The sheer fire he operates on implies otherwise.
Bryant is presently averaging 27 points, 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game, the latter of which is a career high. That he can still set career highs nearly two decades into his career is incredible. Simply amazing.
If Kobe finishes the year where he is now, he'll be just the fourth player over 30 in NBA history to average at least 27 points, five rebounds and six assists per game. And he'll be the only one to have done so after his 32nd birthday, making him the oldest player to ever eclipse those plateaus in the same season.
This isn't a shell of Bryant we're watching. It's actually Kobe, in all his volume-scoring glory.
Well, that's not entirely true.
Bryant isn't especially known for his ability to adjust or make sacrifices. Shaq would attest to that, and there's a part of me that believes Dwight would, too.
That in mind, much of Kobe's success this season has been predicated upon acclimatizing, upon renouncing his shoot-first, pass-later ways. Those career-best 6.1 assists of his aren't conversational fodder. They're evidence that times are changing, and that Bryant is being receptive to alterations.
This season alone, he has handed out 10 or more dimes 11 times. Between 2009 and 2012 (the previous three seasons), he accomplished the same feat on eight separate occasions combined. His chameleon-like adjustments only support his belief that he could play another five years.
His playing time.
He's logging 38.4 minutes of burn per night, the fifth most in the league. Not only is the average age of the four players in front of him—Nicolas Batum, Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant and Luol Deng—24.3, but he's on pace to become just the 12th player in the Association's history, aged 34 or older, to receive more than 38 minutes per game over the course of an entire season.
None of the other 11 players made it through five more years in the league after that. Bryant would be the first. And while we like to believe (as we should) that the Mamba is in a class of his own, he is still human.
Whether he has discovered the Fountain of Youth in Germany or not, he's not immortal. And he knows this. His coach, Mike D'Antoni, knows this. We all know this.
D'Antoni himself even admitted that he was abusing Bryant because, well, he had to (via Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com):
We're playing a little bit with fire. We wouldn't like to but we put ourselves in the position we have to.
We're short-handed right now and we're playing it very tight. Normally this wouldn't happen but we put ourselves in a hole and Kobe is our best bet going forward to win games. He said he's going to retire after a year so we're going to get our money's worth for two years. I don't know what to tell you.
When going on the assumption that Kobe will retire after next season, extracting every last bit of production, every last second of stamina out of that 34-year-old body of his isn't disconcerting. If he actually wishes to play for another five years, though, then it is.
Should the ultimate goal be playing until he's 40, Bryant's minutes should have been tapered. He shouldn't have played more than 40 minutes 27 times this season.
Yet D'Antoni is correct. The Lakers need Bryant on the floor. They don't have the luxury of a deep bench and they haven't put themselves in a position where rest is possible. They're fighting for a postseason spot, an endeavor that could realistically be fruitless.
Save for the whole "missing the playoffs" aspect, Kobe wouldn't have it any other way. D'Antoni has tried to lighten his load, but Bryant has declined. He wants to play.
Every single second, of every single minute, of every single game, he wants to play.
But for how much longer? A year? Two years? Five?
We don't know. And neither does he.
Kobe has been forthcoming about his future plans, but his honesty is ambiguous. He has no idea of when he'll inevitably call it quits.
Today, he feels like he could play until his senior citizen discount kicks in (kidding). Tomorrow, he'll acknowledge he should have retired five years ago (also kidding).
He just doesn't know. And there's no telling when he will. All we do know is that as long as he's donning purple and gold, he wants to play as hard as he can, for as long as he can.
"I don't see it as that big of a deal," Bryant said of his minutes (via Shelburne). "We have some tough games ahead. But we go out there and do what we do."
Eventually, what Kobe will have to do is come to a gripping decision. Be it next season, the one after that or even the one after that, he'll reach a point when dissonant answers won't suffice.
As for when that will be, we just don't know. And apparently, neither does he.
All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, 82games.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.