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The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it's time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2015-16.
Some legendary athletes announce their retirements before the beginning of their final seasons, creating a de facto farewell tour in which opposing fans and teammates can ritually appreciate their achievements and sometimes even bestow gifts upon them. Los Angeles Lakers icon Kobe Bryant was never going to go out in such a fashion. Since entering the league directly from high school in 1996, Bryant has been consistently defiant, convinced of his own supremacy, and focused on the task in front of him. Whenever he leaves professional basketball, he will do so because he has to, not because he wants to.
Those qualities have given Kobe one of the greatest careers in NBA history — five titles, 17 All-Star selections, 11 All-NBA First Team selections, top-10 all-time status, places at the top of the record books for the most consistently successful franchise the league has ever seen, etc. In addition to the quantifiable, he has maintained a constant level of relevance even when the Lakers' record suggests he shouldn't. Put simply, Kobe matters in a way that few others in NBA history have. He makes any situation fascinating by his mere presence.
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The question for 2015-16 is exactly what he expects to prove in his last season under contract. Kobe's last two seasons have been injury plagued anticlimaxes in which hoped-for returns to stardom crash after a few months. At 37 years old, Kobe continues to be betrayed by his body and has been unable to count on any star teammates for help. Although No. 2 overall pick D'Angelo Russell provides hope for the future, the Lakers are a high-lottery team that will need to space to grow without paying too much attention to wins and losses. For that matter, it seems very unlikely that Bryant can carry the Lakers to fringe playoff status in the manner that he did in the middle of last decade, when he was in full control of his powers and, for all the talk of his selfish tendencies, the single-most talented player in basketball.
With the Lakers attempting to rebuild (or maybe just to become OK with the idea of it), Kobe figures to be unhappy as the franchise remains near the bottom of the conference standings. He cannot really be blamed for holding that opinion, because he has little time left in which to achieve his goals. Yet aging players (with very few exceptions) must eventually come to terms with their own limits and accept a share of compromise. For whatever reason — perhaps he thinks his injuries have only served as a temporary limit — Kobe seems unable to accept that he will not perform at his typically high level until he retires. Like Allen Iverson before him, he can only play on his own terms.
While we don't know what Kobe expects from 2015-16, we can safely anticipate the following — a reasonable amount of time missed due to injury and rest, strong scoring averages and questionable scoring efficiency, relatively few wins, a few minor dust-ups with teammates, and a few social media storms in which he proclaims his greatness. There will probably be a few nights of 35 or 40 points, too, the type that will have us all guessing if it's Kobe's last great scoring night. We'll also have no idea if he's actually retiring, because a Kobe in competition is a Kobe who cannot countenance sitting on the sidelines. It will not be a glorious campaign for Kobe Bryant. There will be more controversies and arguments than moments of greatness.
He will also remain more interesting than all but two or three players. While Kobe's season may not feature many warmed-over tributes, a thrashing mess of a year would be a more fitting farewell to one of the most compelling athletes of the past quarter-century. He may not go out on the terms he wants, but Kobe will at least finish this season, if not his career, in a manner only he could provide.
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