Kobe Bryant and the Lakers’ shared identity crisis

Kobe Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers are in one of the most precarious positions either could find themselves: on the precipice of life without each other. So, it should come as no surprise that neither are hesitant to admit their situation.

How each party has handled this situation publicly is pretty telling.

Mitch Kupchak made “news” earlier this offseason – and the word “news” is used loosely here, as nothing actually happened – for claiming that he and the Lakers are operating under the assumption that Kobe plans to retire after the upcoming season.

It didn’t help when, hours later, Bryant tweeted that no such decision had been made. #NadaNew

Their exchange came across as clunky and, obviously, detached from one another. How can the general manager and star player be so far apart on a seemingly black-or-white issue? At season’s end, Kobe will either retire, or not. There’s literally no wiggle room. That won’t stop us from speculating, though. Those tea leaves will read and reread to no end.

Let’s first look at what’s riding on Kobe’s retirement from the Lakers’ standpoint.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

If Bryant does choose to return next season, the Lakers would be in the incredibly awkward position of deciding whether they might be better off without one of the franchise’s most popular and decorated players. If we’re being completely honest, they are better off with his salary off the books.

As much as Kobe’s incredible fan base hates to admit it, the Lakers are probably looking forward to his departure, at least to a certain extent. Yes, one of the most exciting and successful eras in the organization’s history would be coming to a close, but the cap space and flexibility which would come along with it has to be enticing.

It doesn’t take much reading between the lines recently to understand how what might be best for the Lakers hasn’t necessarily mirrored what would benefit its franchise player. As the latter has neared retirement, knowing Bryant’s incredible competitive spirit, you have to imagine he’d want to go out with at least one last playoff run.

Had the Lakers satisfied that playoff demand, they might have seriously hindered the rebuilding efforts, which, while bumpy, seem to be heading in the right direction with newly drafted D’Angelo Russell as the centerpiece. A desperation trade easily could have seriously undermined this process.

Now, from Kobe’s side of the equation, I honestly don’t think he knows what he wants to do.

He could try to win a title elsewhere, but Bryant has to have taken into account the hit his hero and predecessor – you know, that Michael Jordan guy – took by ending his career in Washington. Yes, we’ve all tried to move on as if that never happened, but the risk of tainting an otherwise spotless and spot-lit career can’t be worth the minimal reward of winning a title as a role player elsewhere.

Think also of Peyton Manning’s years in Denver. The stats he’s accumulated at record rates are great, but more playoff disappointed has solidified him as the greatest regular season quarterback ever. That those years took place away from the Indianapolis Colts franchise he helped build is just another twist of a knife.

Look at Steve Nash. The end was obviously in his immediate future, yet he stuck around and tried to compete because that’s what athletes do. Sure, the millions of dollars were part of any incentive to stick around, but it has to go deeper than that.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Guys like Kobe and Nash have defined themselves for essentially their entire lives by their basketball talent. Their love of the game has driven them to overcome impossible odds to not just make it to the NBA, but dominate it. The concept of a life beyond the sport has to be intimidating, if not downright terrifying.

Beyond that indecision and in a more practical sense, I just don’t figure Bryant for the type who would enjoy some sappy farewell tour. As he said for much of last year, from his perspective, fans and media have hated him for going on two decades. Now, he might leave and they’re ready to change their story? I can’t blame him at all for not embracing that narrative shift.

So, what’s the best way to ensure that faux-well tour doesn’t happen? Act as if you’re not quite convinced you’re ready to retire. If Bryant hints enough that he might actually come back, he might stop opposing teams from giving him horrid gifts in propped up pre-game ceremonies.

Now, there is a legitimate argument as to whether Kobe owes the opportunity to say goodbye or thank him for his irreplicable career. At the end of the day, he is an entertainer, and that farewell is an important stage in the relationship between audience and artist. Undoubtedly, that discussion will take place over the course of the 2015-16 campaign and, eventually, when Bryant decides to hang up his signature Nikes.

Until then, however, as we watch from afar an extremely personal decision take shape, both for Bryant and his Lakers, let’s not rush to push him out the door, nor beg him to stay. Instead, let’s take it for exactly what it is: two of the most driven entities in professional sports history struggle with arguably the scariest aspect of their being: the identity crisis of life without each other.

Author: Anthony F. Irwin

The old guy.

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