Injuries have polluted what figured to be an age-abolishing twilight not two years ago. Bryant wasn't just playing at a high level, he was dominating. Dunking. Defying. The Black Mamba became the first NBA player older than 31 to average at least 27 points, five rebounds and six assists per game in 2012-13.
Then it was over. The remainder of his season was lost to a torn Achilles. And all but six games of 2013-14 were lost to a fracture in his left leg and, unofficially, the Lakers' tanking efforts.
Next season is Bryant's shot at redemption. It's not going to come with a butchered role or a stark shift in mentality. He's returning to a Lakers team that needs him to be Kobe Bryant one last time.
Bryant wouldn't return as a superstar. His status would remain unchanged, but his role wouldn't be the same. His stay as Los Angeles' No. 1 offensive option and all-inclusive lifeline would be over.
But the Lakers aren't emerging from this offseason with James or Anthony—or even Pau Gasol. They have Julius Randle. They have Ed Davis. They have Jeremy Lin.
They have Carlos Boozer.
The Lakers aren't assembled to contend or win much of anything. Some even have them pegged as tankers:
Really, the Lakers fall somewhere in between. They aren't good enough to chase championships, but they're not bad enough to dwell in the place Sam Hinkie calls home, where they can retain the top-five protected first-round pick that's owed to the Phoenix Suns.
The Lakers, in no uncertain terms, are Bryant's team.
"I can sit here and tell you with 100 percent honesty that I'm happy with the effort the organization put forward this summer," he said, per ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne. "I think Mitch has responded quite efficiently (from missing on Melo/Pau) by picking up some of the pieces he has."
Of course he's happy. General manager Mitch Kupchak and friends haven't put him in position to win his sixth championship next season. But they have given him the freedom to be him.
Nick Young won't be the focal point of the Los Angeles offense. Nor will Randle. Don't be surprised if Lin isn't the one shouldering ball-handling responsibilities.
Scoring will be up to Bryant. Playmaking will be up to Bryant. Everything the Lakers intend to do will run through Bryant.
This isn't 2012-13, when his accolades were supposed to come laced with sacrifice. Or 2013-14, when the Lakers didn't really know what to ask of Bryant.
This is 2005-06 all over again, when the Lakers were coming off of a lottery appearance Bryant publicly despised and he was granted absolute freedom and expected to exercise it.
One more year of the Kobe Show. That's what the Lakers have given him, per Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding:
The Lakers do have other shot creators when things bog down with Young, Randle, Henry, Boozer and the point guards, but it is shaping up to be the Kobe show again. Whoever the coach is, the Lakers are likely to be a traditional team in an era when the game is going toward faster tempo, quicker passing and smaller frontcourts.
Where the rest of the league will be moving forward, the Lakers will turn to a familiar face.
Bryant can attempt more than 27 shots a night, the way he did nine years ago. He can chase the scoring title, the same one he pursued and caught in 2005-06. He can try to eclipse the gap between him and Michael Jordan and move into third place on the all-time scoring list.
He can look at himself as the Lakers' last and only hope, the one man standing between them and a second straight postseason-less crusade, a fate they haven't fallen victim to since the mid-1970s.
Differences exist, of course, with Bryant's health and stamina being chief among them. Pushing 36, he won't be logging 40-plus minutes a night. His availability is up in the air. There may be a minutes cap, there may not.
Everything is predicated on him staying healthy—healthy enough to take advantage of this trip down memory lane, to years past, when the Lakers were his and only his. Because at some point, he will have to share, ultimately taking a giant step back before bowing out entirely.
Howard was supposed to represent the new era of Lakers basketball. His departure paved the way for this transition but didn't kill the dream entirely. The Lakers are still planning for a quick a turnaround, as Lakers Nation's Gary Kester lays out:
Simply put, the Lakers elected to save their money for deeper and more talented free agent classes in 2015 and 2016, while gaining a few assets in the process. This also gives them an added option in terms of the trade element. Los Angeles has a long history of acquiring superstars through trades. In order to land quality talent in a trade, you need assets and expiring contracts, although I personally consider them to be one in the same. The Lakers now have some at their disposal.
If all goes according to plan and the Lakers nab their next big fish—be it Kevin Love, Marc Gasol or someone else—Bryant won't be alone much longer, making 2014-15 something of a sendoff.
Alongside Love or Gasol or another star, Bryant takes a backseat. He helps usher in a new generation that doesn't include him while chasing that sixth championship.
Falling in line isn't his responsibility, though. Ceding control isn't on him. Not yet.
"It's my job to go out there next season and lay it all out there on the line and get us to that elite level," he said, via ESPN.com.
Right now, next season, it's his job to embrace every stubbornly competitive bone in his body, offering Lakers fans an unadulterated glimpse into the trenchant athlete they have come to know and miss and, as early as 2015-16, will never see again.
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.
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