Here's the Kobe Bryant Story, in all its picture-perfect glory: Child takes league by storm. Child broaches adulthood and shit hits the fan. Demons outrun and maturation complete, child rises as a man, redeemed, to near-universal acclaim.
Now, what was once the public’s uneasy detente with the Lakers ball-hoggin', (accused) sex-offendin', basketball sociopath has leveled out into something approaching acceptance. Kobe embraced his teammates, acknowledged flaws and ended up with two more titles to show for it. He topped off his legacy while at the same time developing a game more suited to his age. Kobe Bryant only remains polarizing to those who haven’t bothered to move on to LeBron.
It was assumed that, out of respect and inevitability, this current Lakers squad was to sunset with Kobe. He would bow out of the game when he felt like it—maybe too soon (like Jordan) or too late (like Jordan)—but either way, his pride would be kept intact. Kobe, his knees deteriorating, had no choice but to accept (or at least acknowledge) his mortality. The Lakers, bound by honor and salary cap situation, were similarly fated.
Increasingly, though, it’s looking like new head coach Mike Brown has other plans. The aged Lakers, who were soundly thrashed by the Mavericks in the playoffs, aren't winding things down—or some might say, giving up—quite yet. The Lakers are Kobe, but they're also Pau Gasol, one of the game's premier big men and still in his prime, and Andrew Bynum, a monster of a young center if only he could stay healthy. The Lakers may be stuck with this team, but there’s no reason that its immediate future needs to be shackled to one man’s narrative. They have options.
When Mike Brown suggests to Kevin Ding that the offense will be moving more and more toward an inside game, it's common sense. Pau Gasol ain't done yet, and relegating Andrew Bynum to standing around in worship is a pretty sizable waste of basketball talent (and cap space). Lamar Odom is under contract for at least one more year; he’s coming off one of the best seasons of his erratic, if frequently brilliant, career. The Lakers frontcourt has been strong and active for a while. Phil knew that. This time, though, the new coach is signaling a real change, or at least he should be.
Brown has made allusions to the Twin Towers of Tim Duncan and David Robinson that powered the Spurs’ shadow dynasty to its first couple of titles. Except in that case, Robinson was little more than a beloved role player. Gasol is not the equal of a young Duncan; if nothing else, he will never be as much of a force on the block, no matter how much he bulks up and works at it. But Bynum is getting better every season, his development slowed mostly by injuries. When he’s healthy, and the Lakers make him a priority, it pays colossal dividends.
The key is keeping that emphasis going throughout an entire game—allowing them the same room to stretch out and potentially screw up that Kobe has always had. They need a comfort zone. And that can only come from Bryant, who does not just have to pass the ball, but not begrudge it. The last thing anyone on the Lakers wants to deal with is Kobe’s resentment.
If the Lakers want to stay relevant, and not just go through the motions of a dying dynasty for the sake of Kobe's ego, Bryant must take on a new role. This means another challenge for Kobe, a call to him to prove once again that he can deal with getting smaller, as well as further indication that he’s smarter than he is arrogant. Can the great show of humility that allowed Kobe to "grow up" be pushed even further? Is he willing, or ready, to acknowledge that he can no longer carry a team, and that facilitating others—at the expense of his heroics—is the only way for the Lakers to win any more? He may even find himself more responsible than ever for making sure his younger teammates in the backcourt learn the game.
Kobe has nothing to prove; you wonder, though, if going out on his terms is as important to him as getting to the top in the first place. There's a difference between making one big, obvious compromise at a key juncture, and understanding what a fine art it really is. So far, we've seen signs that he both is and is not ready to accept change. Maybe that reads as contradiction, but more likely, it's one man looking for some kind of internal resolution, calibrating his point of view before he comes to the table. That in itself is a positive sign.