The offseason’s wholesale recalibration of the NBA has gone a long way toward answering one of the league’s most interesting questions: It turns out that, yes, Kobe Bryant can age gracefully.
In reportedly helping recruit Steve Nash to join him in Los Angeles next season, Bryant helped the Lakers make a move that does more than thrust them back into the NBA’s upper echelon. It also signifies a kind of wisdom – and humility – any all-time great must find as his body ages and his window starts to close.
For Bryant, with his 34th birthday two months away, that time is now. And in adding Nash, an all-time great point guard who will force Bryant to give up touches and cede control of the offense, No. 24 has shown that deep down he doesn’t just know the clock is running down. He’s showing he can accept that fact and act on it by bringing in less of a Dwight Howard-like weapon and more of an actual equal.
None of this is to say Kobe Bryant is washed up or that age has deprived him of his greatness. It is to say that day is coming, as it comes for everyone. Dwyane Wade reminded us in these past Finals that time is the great equalizer that way. Bryant could have ignored that fact, could have convinced himself he has the ability and youth to will Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol and an assortment of spare parts through the sheer force of his greatness. A younger Kobe probably could, and certainly it’s what a player with his gifts would strive to do in younger years.
Instead, a wiser version of that player, one who seems in tune with his limits and his remaining powers, went a different route. He has decided to chase his sixth ring by opting to support another adult into the room to help lead the kids (Bynum) and the weak-willed, would-be leaders (Gasol). This is Kobe Bryant, a true control freak, ceding much of himself and his control to someone with the heft, experience and reputation to command it. That takes more than confidence. It takes the rarest of gifts in great talent: self-awareness.
There are, of course, other factors at play here beyond Bryant helping recruit a great point guard who will share his place in the locker room and cut into his touches on the floor. The Lakers must do what they can to squeeze as many championship-caliber seasons as possible from Kobe’s remaining years, and that requires help. The trade exception used to bring Nash in on the surprise sign-and-trade deal this week means the door has not closed on Dwight Howard – and, in fact, could further motivate the big man to make the Lakers his appointed destination-of-choice of the moment.
So there is still time to trade Bynum for Howard, for Gasol to go if that is necessary and for the pieces around this new Bryant-Nash tandem to be reassembled before next season. But whatever form this team takes – including one that includes Howard – it will be two men and two men only who are the heart and soul of the Los Angeles Lakers.
After getting rolled out of the postseason by the much younger Oklahoma City Thunder, Bryant stared down his own expiration date with a typical flare of fiery I’m-not-washed-up-yet quotes:
“I’m not fading into the shadows, if that is what you’re asking,” he interrupted when asked about the inevitable subject of the changing of guard. “I’m not going anywhere. We’re not going anywhere. This is not one of those things where the Bulls beat the Pistons and the Pistons disappear forever. I’m not going for that (expletive).”
Followed by: “I’m not the most patient of people, and the organization is not particularly patient either,” he said. “Come hell or high water, we will be there again.”
Fair enough. But it’s one thing to say you’re not washed up – who wouldn’t say it? – and another to go out and recruit a player who will force you to relinquish so much control over your team because you know it’s your best shot.
Kobe Bryant recruited an equal into his midst in Nash rather than a petulant man-child like Howard because it turns out his greatness will, in older age, be accompanied by a canny willingness to exchange some leadership for a chance at a title.