You had to know Kobe Bryant wasn’t looking to pass the torch to the Oklahoma City Thunder on a night when he wasn’t even looking to pass the ball. Bryant offered an offensive clinic in his final game of the season on Monday, serving up a plate of assorted pump fakes, fadeaways, footwork and flash.
He scored 42 points in 41 minutes as the Los Angeles Lakers were eliminated from the second round for the second year in a row, following a 106-90 loss to the Thunder. But Bryant also had zero assists, which was evidence of the limited trust he had in his teammates – and also confirmation that he was playing for his legacy as much as a Lakers victory in Game 5.
After losing another opportunity to win that coveted Michael-Jordan-tying sixth ring, Bryant was even more reluctant to concede anything to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the young’uns who exacted their revenge for losing to the Lakers two years ago. In Bryant’s mind, the changing of the guard hasn’t occurred. Not yet.
“I’m not fading into the shadows, if that is what you’re asking. I’m not going anywhere,” Bryant told reporters in Oklahoma City, before interrupting a follow-up question to add, “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 . . .”
Bryant averaged 38.7 points in the final three games of the series against the Thunder and finished this 12-game postseason run with the third-best scoring average (30.0) of any player who began a season aged 33 or older. Jordan, of course, had the two best – averaging 32.4 points in 1998 and 31.1 points in 1997 – but he wound up winning championships in both of those seasons. Bryant has won just one game beyond the first round in the past two postseasons.
“It’s kind of unfamiliar territory,” Bryant said. “I’m really not used to it. It’s pretty odd for me. I’m not the most patient of people and the organization’s not extremely patient either. We want to win and win now. I’m sure we’ll figure it out. We always have and I’m sure we will again.”
Unfortunately for Bryant, the reason that the Lakers had to be considered a championship contender may now also be the reason that they won’t win another anytime soon.
The Kobe system may have run its course.
Bryant’s ornery defiance certainly has served the Lakers well over the past five seasons. He wasn’t willing to accept that he would never win another championship without Shaquille O’Neal, and he claimed two more titles – with three trips to the NBA Finals – after the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol.
After Dallas swept the Lakers out of the second round last season, Bryant decided that he wasn’t going to succumb to age, injury, excessive mileage and outsiders’ views of his athletic limitations. He went to Germany last summer to have a knee procedure that would extend his relevance, and had a season that was equally brilliant and befuddling. Bryant had great moments, finishing percentage points behind Durant for the scoring title. But he had to work too hard to get off his shot, and the Lakers became a slow, plodding and inefficient offensive team – despite the presence of two talented but inconsistent big men in Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
Game 5 was symbolic of Bryant’s plight. Hard as he fought, Bryant couldn’t hold off the inevitable. Durant and Westbrook were coming after him and got him. Eventually, every player relinquishes his spot on the top. Bryant went out gun-slinging with 33 shots, but it’s not up to him.
The Lakers’ loss to the young, wild and free Thunder was predictable, but so were Bryant’s comments afterward that his title window hadn’t closed. “Come hell or high water, we’re going to be there again,” Bryant said.
Bryant is owed roughly $58.3 million over the next two seasons, taking up a huge portion of the salary cap in a new NBA economic infrastructure. The Lakers will have a hard time improving with Bryant declining, meaning the pieces around him have to change dramatically if they will make another title run with him in uniform.
The Lakers have to get younger and more athletic, but they used their first-round draft pick to get Ramon Sessions, leaving a trade as the only option to get better. They came close to starting that transformation by nearly acquiring Chris Paul from the New Orleans, but that would’ve been an interesting mix, especially with Paul’s ball dominance and Bryant’s need for dribbles and time to get off shots.
This postseason has proven that size doesn’t matter more than superb perimeter scoring and point guard play. The Lakers had no reliable perimeter options outside of Bryant, Sessions was overwhelmed, and they will now have to aggressively look to move one of their 7-foot all-stars.
Bynum was probably the only Laker who didn’t care about how Bryant felt about him, but that indifference worked both ways with his frequency to lose focus and frustrating nonchalance. Bryant called out Gasol several times but the player whose arrival made the Lakers a contender again never fully recovered nearly getting traded to Houston in the three-team trade involving Paul. The Lakers need to move Gasol and he probably would like a clean break after disappearing in the past two postseasons.
“It’s tough to really process exactly what we need with improvements and what area we need to improve on,” Bryant said. “But that’s something that we’ll definitely think through and we’ve really been great at as an organization. Mitch [Kupchak, the Lakers’ general manager] has really done a phenomenal job this past decade in building title teams pretty quickly. We just have to do it again.”
Mike Brown replaced a legend in Phil Jackson but never really connected with his players. With few practices in a lockout-shortened season, the offense became more Kobe-centric than recent years and Bryant sometimes lost track of the ball movement and reliance on teammates that resulted in winning back-to-back titles.
His teammates never appeared to be more than just along for the ride.
Bryant almost won a scoring title and finished fourth in minutes in his 16th season. He has played more than 42,000 regular season minutes and nearly 4,500 more in the postseason, which makes his longevity and sustained greatness even more impressive.
But he will be 34 in August. Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls for the second time at age 35. Jordan hadn’t even played 36,000 regular season minutes after winning his sixth NBA title.
With each lost season, Bryant moves further away from his quest for six. No matter what he says, time is fading away.
“It’s different being 21 years old, with an endless amount of opportunity,’’ Bryant said. “At 33, the ending is much, much closer. . . You definitely become even more hungry, more impatient.’’
And more defiant.
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