Kobe Bryant tries to envision an NBA without him in it. (Getty Images)
Heading into a season with his Los Angeles Lakers once again entrenched among the unquestioned heavyweights of the NBA, thanks to offseason deals that imported All-Stars Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to join Pau Gasol in a starting lineup that's likely to give opponents fits, you kind of expect Kobe Bryant to spend his preseason talking about how excited he is to play alongside a point guard of Nash's talents, and to groom Howard as the next signature star in the Lakers' illustrious history, and to take deadeye aim at a sixth NBA title (which would, of course, tie him on the all-time list with prototype killer shooting guard/greatest of all time Michael Jordan). And, to be fair, he is doing that. But he's also touching on a topic that's likely to be a bit less thrilling to Lakers fans: the approaching end of his first-ballot Hall of Fame career.
Bryant has two years and $58.3 million remaining on the contract he signed in 2010, a three-year extension that runs through the end of the 2013-14 season. At that point, he'll be just shy of his 36th birthday, and at that point, as he told Ken Berger of CBSSports.com, he thinks he's probably going to be done.
Speaking with CBSSports.com in a quiet moment after practice, Bryant conceded that, in all likelihood, the finish line and the conclusion of his current contract will be one in the same. Bryant has two years left, and though he was careful to point out, "One can never be too sure," he made it clear in the next breath it's almost unfathomable he would play beyond 2013-14, which would be his 18th season.
"It's just that three more years seems like a really long time to continue to stay at a high, high level of training and preparation and health," Bryant said. "That's a lot of years. For a guard? That's a lot of years." [...]
"It's not about health necessarily," he said. "It's about 'Do I want to do it? Do I have that hunger to continue to prepare at a high level?'"
Bryant's comments track with the attitude he expressed several months ago during a lengthy interview with Yahoo! Sports' Graham Bensinger, during which he identified the final year of his current contract as a likely stopping point: "I don't know if I'll play any longer than that."
The 18-season mark represents rarefied air among elite NBA players, especially, as Kobe notes, among guards — while a handful of Hall of Fame big men (Moses Malone, Robert Parish, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon) played 18 or more seasons, only two backcourt players enshrined in Springfield have done so: John Stockton, inducted in 2009 following a 19-year career with the Utah Jazz, and Reggie Miller, inducted last month after an 18-year run (mostly off screens) with the Indiana Pacers.
With 18 years in the books and three more coming, thanks to the New York Knicks, Jason Kidd will join Stockton and Reggie when he hangs 'em up; if new running buddy Nash and Ray Allen (16 years down each) finish out their new contracts, they'll likely do the same. But among guards, that's it; that's the list. And considering all Bryant's accomplished in his career, and the fact that none of the other four guards were relied upon to be their team's primary scoring threat until the bitter end, it seems pretty reasonable to slot Kobe in at the top of that list, number one with a bullet, a jaw-jut and a contested jumper that somehow goes in.
While it might seem borderline unfathomable for fans (especially those who tend to rock purple-and-gold 24 and 8 jerseys on the reg) to consider the impending exit of a player who averaged a 28-5-5 last year and who, even in one of the least efficient seasons of his career, still ranked among the league's top 20 players in per-minute effectiveness, there's only so much you can avoid reality. As TNT commentator Charles Barkley is fond of saying, "Father Time is undefeated," and no matter how many trips Kobe takes to Germany, how much weight he loses in the offseason or how many pepperoni pizzas he eats before games, there's no way around the 51,018 NBA minutes (regular season and postseason combined) that Kobe has put on his body. And with Bryant's Lakers reloaded and looking like serious contenders for NBA championships in each of the two years remaning on his existing deal, fairly reasonable expectations for his minute allotment (baring injury, natch) would push him well past Stockton's 54,162 among HoF-type guards into territory previously trod only by the tall trees.
More than that, the prospect of playing beyond age 36 on legs that have seen nearly 60,000 minutes of NBA action carries with it the likelihood of being a reduced, diminished version of the fire of old. And that can be a pretty good life, if you're in the right situation; after Bryant's July interview with Bensinger, our own Kelly Dwyer considered the possibility that he might stick around after '13-14, perhaps on a lucrative one-year deal that would coincide with the end of the new three-year deal the team just gave Nash, and take another run at a title on a reconfigured team with Howard at the helm and a possibly re-upped Gasol working, as ever, as a super-effective secondary option toward another title that could push Bryant past Michael Jordan in the record books and, if he were to walk away at the peak of accomplishment, perhaps in the memories of some.
But for a perennial killer like Kobe, that's not a prospect he regards warmly, and he quickly told Berger as much:
To hear Bryant, the most cutthroat basketball combatant of his generation, speak about the day -- the moment -- when his smoldering desire to win finally will be extinguished, was something to behold.
So much so that the next question -- about whether Bryant would ever change his mind and hang on for an extra year or two as a role player averaging 15 points just to pad his championship resume -- needn't have been asked.
"That's not gonna happen," Bryant said. "That's just not me."
Then again, retiring at a time when he could still average 20-plus and play deep into the summer doesn't sound a whole lot like Kobe, either. It's difficult to imagine a still-healthy, still-productive, still-bloodthirsty version of Kobe actually walking away after winning one last ring while playing at a high level; it's damn near impossible to envision him doing so after failing to do so.
Mounting anecdotal evidence to the contrary, we should probably still regard the retirement talk as, at best, incredibly premature. A lot can happen in two years, and as a number of players have shown over the years — including Kevin Garnett for the Boston Celtics last postseason — a lion in winter can continue to roar pretty damn loud. Still, the more he talks, the less we can avoid it: At some point soon, Kobe Bryant won't be in the NBA anymore. It's a good thing we've got a couple of years to wrap our heads around that, because it's probably going to take a while.
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