There's no guarantee 2015-16 is the end for Kobe Bryant. But it sure feels that way.
Accepting you are no longer an elite player is the most challenging aspect of the end of a superstar athlete’s career, especially one as confident as Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant.
While most pundits assumed Bryant would have a difficult time regaining the effectiveness he displayed as recently as the 2012-13 season, not many saw this steep of a drop-off coming. Bryant hasn’t been just bad, he’s been horrific.
Though his on-court demeanor and play — he’s still hoisting up 16.2 shots per game — suggest Bryant still considers himself an elite player, there are clues that indicate Bryant is actually beginning to acknowledge his inevitable demise.
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Here are three ways Bryant is beginning to accept his basketball mortality:
1. He’s slowly but surely giving up the spotlight in crunch time
Bryant has built a reputation as one of the game’s most feared clutch performers. While that’s always been something of a myth, the Lakers live and die with Bryant’s late-game decisions — he takes the last shot, and that’s that. And he’s been pretty good at it.
This season, though, Bryant deferred to a teammate down the stretch of a close game — the Lakers’ first of the season, in fact. With the Lakers trailing the Minnesota Timberwolves 112-111 in their season opener, Bryant disrupted a Julius Randle fast break to call a timeout with 4.3 seconds left and, in theory, set up the last play for himself. It was the most Bryant thing ever; Randle had a clear lane to the rim and could’ve possibly secured a win, yet Bryant cared more about taking the shot himself.
Anyone watching the game knew where the ball was going. As Bryant set up on the left sideline as the inbounds passer out of the timeout, the assumption was that he would quickly dart off a screen and try to get a clean look. But the play ended up being for Bryant’s teammate, Lou Williams, who caught a pass from Bryant and drove down the right side of the lane, missing a 4-foot runner.
It may sound insignificant, but when was the last time Bryant willingly passed up a last shot? Sure, it’s happened before, and perhaps this was out of his control — Lakers coach Byron Scott made the final decision. But Bryant has traditionally refused to not have the ball in his hands late in games, and most coaches — even Phil Jackson — have abided by his demands. Scott has catered to Bryant during his tenure as coach, so it’s reasonable to me to assume Bryant signed off on Williams taking the last shot.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. The Lakers haven’t had many close games, of course. But in one of the few since the opener, Bryant didn’t shoot in the final 5:31 of a 120-109 loss to the Denver Nuggets last week after airballing a few shots. Bryant genuinely looked timid — his final field-goal attempt was an airball 3-pointer from the right wing — and passed up shots he would normally take down the stetch. That’s unheard of from him, and a possible indication he may understand his limitations better than we think.
Bryant recently called himself the “200th-best player” in the NBA, adding, “I freaking suck.” Though he was clearly being sarcastic and a bit dramatic — c’mon, do you really think he thinks he’s that bad? — the tone with which he made the comments signified an undertone of truth to them. He’s obviously frustrated and disappointed with his play this season — turn on any Lakers game and watch his body language after another bad miss. He can’t believe it. It’s as if his mind is thinking one thing and his body is telling him another. It’s just brutal to watch.
At this point, Bryant is playing at a level well below average. He’s shooting 32.0 percent from the field — five percent worse than last season, which was almost five percent worse than his previous low — and just 20.8 percent on 3s, despite taking nearly half of his shots from distance. Bryant’s dissatisfaction has gotten so bad that Scott had to send Bryant home from practice because he was so angry with his play last week.
After the aforementioned Nuggets loss, which dropped the Lakers to 0-4, Bryant said it was fine for Lakers fans to “freak out” about their start. Again, he said it in a sarcastic tone, but there is some truth to that sentiment. Anyone who has watched the Lakers’ first few games can tell that they’re probably the worst team in the West and that this is going to be another long season. There just isn’t enough talent there, and Bryant isn’t doing his teammates any favors with his terrible shot selection.
By making these comments, even in jest, Bryant is playfully acknowledging the truth. He may be too stubborn to admit it on the court, which has been an issue throughout his career, but it’s starting to leak out in his conversations with the media.
3. He’s even acknowledging this might be the end
Part of what has made Bryant so polarizing throughout his career is his unwavering self-belief. The reason he takes so many shots — especially the bad ones — is because he trusts himself more than his teammates, and he would rather the Lakers’ fate be determined by his actions, not someone else’s. That’s an admirable quality to Kobe fans — they love that alpha-dog mindset and his willingness to embrace big moments. To others, though, it comes off as self-centered and the wrong way to play a team sport.
For that reason, it’s been tough to project when exactly Bryant would want to retire. Even as his numbers and efficiency have diminished over the past three years amid injuries and age, his confidence has not. Wondering just how stubborn Kobe could be became something of a parlor game: Would he ever acknowledge a loss to Father Time? Would he just play until he was 45 years old and an injury ended his career? You could tell me any possible scenario with the end of Bryant’s career that involved his overestimating his ability and I would believe it.
But it looks like the final chapter of Bryant’s career may be ending in a more predictable manner, which is shocking in and of itself. Bryant recently admitted that this is likely his last season. He hasn’t confirmed it yet, but even Scott chimed in and said he and Bryant discussed his retirement. For Bryant to make that concession so early into the season is alarming. He had previously maintained the stance that he’d see how the season played out before making a decision. But now, Bryant seems to realize his body won’t hold up much longer, and he isn’t satisfied with the way he’s playing. He’s accepting his mortality — he knows he’s not the player he wants to be, and because of that, he’s willing to walk away.
Bryant has long said that he will never accept being a role player in the NBA and that if it ever got to that point, he’d just retire. Well, he’s at that point. And he’s accepting it much easier than most assumed — or at least that’s how it appears. The final step is Bryant recognizing his mortality and adjusting his game. Bryant can still be a decent player, a productive player, if he fully embraces the mindset he’s already begun to accept off the court. It might never happen. He is who he is, and that’s why he’ll be missed.