Kobe Bryant isn’t going out like this, not if $25 million is on the line next season or $25. The last image of Bryant isn’t going to be a left-handed air ball in a meaningless regular-season game, his soon-to-be surgically repaired shoulder shredded, trying to carry a last-place Lakers team that desperately needs to be one of the five worst outfits in the NBA this season to retain its draft pick. His competitive spirit simply won’t permit it.
Too cliché? Remember: This is a man who has few parts of his body that have not been broken, torn or surgically repaired. This is a man who played with a splint on a mangled finger in 2009-2010 and skipped surgery on it that summer because, you know, he wasn’t interested in a lengthy recovery. This is a man who would probably chop off a finger if he could raise another to mark a sixth championship.
Bryant will be back. But will it be in Los Angeles?
Here we go again. Trade Kobe. It’s a popular position. The Lakers, playoff outsiders last season, Western Conference doormats this season, clearly aren’t going anywhere. Bryant, 36, is finished with a season where he averaged nearly as many shots (20.4) as points (22.3). He has fewer win shares (0.1) than Alexis Ajinca. The Lakers were a whopping 14 points per 100 possessions better when Bryant was on the bench this season; only Bryant’s teammate, Jordan Hill, has a worse net efficiency differential this season.
This isn’t meant to pile on. This Lakers team probably makes Bryant long for the days of Smush Parker. They don’t score or defend and the roster is a collection of middling talent that doesn’t seem to fit together. At 26, Bryant couldn’t do much with this group; at 36, he can do even less.
Here’s the thing: Little is likely to change next season.
The Lakers, presumably, will have a top-five pick, one they hope will become Jahlil Okafor but is more likely to be Karl Towns, Emmanuel Mudiay or Stanley Johnson. They will get Julius Randle back. They will have the cap space to pursue a top free agent, maybe two and, if you believe Bryant, Dallas’s Rajon Rondo is still very much on his radar.
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But that will do what, exactly? The Lakers still play in the West, the varsity conference that gets better by the year. Golden State, Houston, Oklahoma City and the Clippers aren’t going anywhere. Memphis and Portland, provided they re-sign key free agents, aren’t either. Dallas still has another good year left in them and if Phoenix drops out, the Pelicans and the more-terrifying-by-the-day Anthony Davis are waiting in the wings to replace them. Under ideal offseason circumstances, the Lakers are an afterthought.
The argument against trading Bryant -- and here is the obligatory reference to Bryant’s no-trade clause, which can make every word of this column irrelevant -- is twofold. For Bryant, it’s legacy. One-team superstars are rare, rarer in today’s salary cap casualty world. There was a time when Bryant strongly considered leaving Los Angeles; today, it’s the last thing he wants to do. For the Lakers, Bryant’s value off the floor is incalculable. He is the driving force behind ticket sales, merchandise and a lucrative local TV deal. With Bryant gone, conventional thinking goes, many Lakers fans will go with him.
Maybe not. In a recent poll on the Los Angeles Times website, 74 percent of voters said Bryant should retire. Not traded. Just walk away. Of course, the 3,500 respondents are a fraction of the fan base, but it’s evidence that at least some Lakers supporters are ready to move on.
That’s what it would be about, too: Moving on. The Lakers aren’t going to get anything for Bryant. There’s only one team that makes sense -- more on that below -- and even they aren’t giving up anything significant for him. Era’s end, and like it or not the Kobe Bryant era is on its final days. By dealing Bryant, the Lakers not only clear his contract off the books but begin the inevitable process of figuring out how to be successful without him. Suddenly, it’s Randle’s team. It’s Mudiay’s team. Maybe they add someone like Greg Monroe to the mix in the offseason and strike gold with the mid-round pick the Rockets are likely sending their way. They begin to rebuild without the overwhelming pressure of needing to win to give Bryant a storybook ending.
The only team that makes sense for Bryant is the Knicks, for obvious reasons. There is Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher, the triangle and the appeal of staying in a major market. New York is a bigger mess than L.A., if you can believe it, and first-time GM Jackson is aggressively looking to deal. The Knicks will have loads of cap space this summer and have a desperate need to be relevant. They have Carmelo Anthony, who has said publicly he has no problem playing with Kobe. Like the Lakers, they will likely have a top-five pick in June. Unlike the Lakers, they play in the Eastern Conference.
That’s the carrot. As much as Bryant wants to finish his career as a Laker, he badly wants another shot at the playoffs, to effectively go out on his shield. In Los Angeles, it’s a pipe dream. In New York, it’s a reality. As bad as the Knicks are now, the infusion of Bryant -- whose institutional knowledge of the triangle would be a huge asset to a team that looks bumfuzzled trying to play it -- and a high pick could be enough to get the 35-40 wins it takes to get into postseason.
For the Knicks, Bryant is a low-risk investment. His contract expires after next season, so there is no long-term risk. Ideally, New York is able to lure a prized free agent this summer but true difference makers like Rondo, Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge look like long shots and there are no guarantees second tier players like Roy Hibbert or Brook Lopez opt out. Why not bring in Bryant -- who would fit neatly into New York’s cap space -- if the price is, say, one of those ever popular conditional first-round picks? It would energize the fan base and make the Knicks truly relevant for the first time in more than a decade. If it works, great; if it doesn’t, the money to make a run at Kevin Durant will still be there in the summer of ’16.
In all likelihood Bryant will be back in L.A., patched up and trying to will the only franchise he has ever known into the playoffs. It’s a perfectly acceptable outcome for both player and team. But before Bryant and the Lakers renew their final vows, it’s worth a look around to see if there is something better for both.