The End of An Era

Randy Ollie, Sports Editor

As another exciting NBA season unfolds, I can’t help but recognize the hard truth: This may well be Kobe Bryant’s final season with the Los Angeles Lakers, as well as his final year in the league.

The prolific shooting guard has been a global basketball icon for nearly two decades, and his fame and reputation transcend multiple generations of basketball fans. Bryant’s jersey currently ranks as the fourth most popular NBA jersey and ranks in the top 10 of the most famous sports jerseys of all time. Heck, if you ever see someone trying to shoot their trash into the garbage bin, you can probably hear them muttering “Kobe” under their breath.

As much as Bryant’s brand and fame have grown over the years, they have always been under the storied franchise umbrella of the Los Angeles Lakers. Much like Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees or Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, Bryant and the Lakers are practically synonymous with one another. The idea of Bryant ever wearing anything other than a purple and gold jersey is simply unimaginable, as is the idea of a Laker’s roster without number 24.

Yet Bryant is 37, and in a league that is being warped by freak athletes and new up-and-coming superstars, one cannot deny that the Kobe era is coming to a close. Last season he shot a career worst: under 30 percent from the floor while shooting close to 24 shots a game. The only time that he averaged more shot attempts in a game was when he was shooting 27 during the 2003–2004 season. But during that season he was averaging nearly 35 points a game, whereas in 2014–2015, he was averaging 25.

While the Lakers’ front office was able to bolster Bryant’s supporting staff over the summer with free agents such as Lou Williams, Brandon Bass, Metta World Peace and Roy Hibbert, the majority of the scoring load will ultimately fall on Bryant’s shoulders as it has for most of his career. Additionally, while there are high hopes for first round picks D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle to produce immediately this season, in reality Bryant is still the main attraction. However, expecting a 37 year old playing in an 82-game season to be productive against the tough competition of the Western Conference seems as improbable as it is unrealistic.

Bryant still has $25 million left on his two-year max contract that he signed last summer, and the question in the back of everyone’s mind has been whether the Lakers will resign him. Bryant has made it clear that he wants to keep playing basketball, but as prolific of a player as he is, he is surprisingly undesirable to the championship contenders in the rest of the league.

Accusations have been flying around the league during the past couple of seasons that Bryant is hard to play with. While nothing has been substantiated for certain, the Lakers’ recent drought of perennial superstar signees during free agency seems to support this claim. After all, trying to convince a 20-something to come make millions of dollars in the City of Angels shouldn’t be too difficult. So while Kobe wants to play, and is certainly capable of playing after his contract expires with the Lakers, many general managers will have a lot to consider before even thinking of signing the superstar.

But should he even keep playing? I feel like a traitor even thinking this, but part of me only wants to remember Kobe the legend, not the 40-year-old has-been that hops from team to team trying to get that sixth championship ring. Michael Jordan’s short stint with the Wizards is something I still can’t get out of my head. While Jordan is without a question the greatest player of all time, those years with the Washington Wizards were a dark time indeed.

To continue playing in the league successfully, Bryant is going to need to rein in his ego and accept that he can no longer be the focal point of a team. He is also going to need to accept that his max contract days are in the rearview mirror. But personally I don’t think that he should do either. He is one of the greatest players in the world, and he should be treated like one.

While the idea of the NBA without Kobe seems like a tragedy, all great things must come to an end. Whether Kobe retires or continues to play, his legacy will definitely remain intact. However, every year he stays in the league he becomes increasingly average, and while it may sound blasphemous to some, Bryant is only human. Every season he plays will only illustrate this further. Whatever ends up happening, try and catch some Lakers games this year if you can. It may be the last time you ever see number 24 don the purple and gold.