Other historical NBA figures have changed numbers before. Charles Barkley had three different numbers over the course of his Hall of Fame career, Shaquille O’Neal had three, but those players changed digits as they jumped from team to team. Rare is the future Hall of Fame that changed numbers while working on one team, and Kobe Bryant appears (typically, for him) unique in this situation.
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With his career coming to an admitted close, Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers are facing down a blessed dilemma of sorts. Should the Lakers retire the No. 8 he wore from 1996 to 2006, or the No. 24 he won two titles with in the decade since?
"I don't know the answer. Obviously it's going to be 8, 24 or it could be both," said Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak at a season-ticket holder event Sunday at Staples Center.
Shaq’s Los Angeles No. 34 is the only one of his four numbers to be retired by a team, as the Lakers celebrated him (however unsteadily) in 2013. Whether or not you think Kobe is the Greatest Laker Ever will be up for unending barroom debate, but I think just about everyone can agree on the idea that if anyone deserved two Laker jerseys heading into the rafters, it would be the Kobester. The Lakers could still possibly find a way to find room on a hanging jersey for two numbers, but the Staples Center has plenty of room up there despite the Lakers’ celebrated history – why not go nuts?
What’s more certain is something that Kupchak has known since the day he signed Bryant, coming off of an Achilles tear, to a whopper of a two-year contract extension in 2013. The Lakers are stuck in a holding pattern while engaging Kobe’s well-heeled farewell tour. From the Los Angeles Times:
"We cannot move on as a team until Kobe leaves," Kupchak said. "Part of that to me is painful because I've been here 20 years with Kobe.
"This is a year that's dedicated to Kobe and his farewell. From my point of view, it gives me complete clarity. ... We know what our [salary] cap situation is going to be like."
Though Bryant has missed six of his team’s 35 games, his presence can’t help but hinder the development of guard D’Angelo Russell and forward Julius Randle. Though it must be fun to play with a legend, and Bryant has forgotten more about basketball (if this year is any indication) than we’ll ever know, Kobe still has a top ten usage rate on his way toward 34 percent shooting on the year.
Bryant has improved of late, but that isn’t the point. The young players need development time, and they need the ball, and the confluence of Kobe’s bad habits and Byron Scott’s bad coaching has made this year in purgatory all the more frustrating.
Scott is likely gone this summer (right? RIGHT???), and Bryant has assured all that his career will end when his $25 million contract expires this July. Kupchak will then be allowed to potentially use two-thirds of the massive salary cap to lure free agents to play in Los Angeles with a young core that could also include a top three pick in this year’s draft (if lottery odds hold up). For someone who has been hamstrung since the 2012 acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard didn’t work out, that light at the end of the tunnel has to look like heaven approaching for the Laker GM.
Until July hits, though, he’ll just have to wait. The Lakers could possible pare down even further at the trade deadline, tossing Roy Hibbert or Lou Williams to a contender in exchange for a draft pick, but Kupchak’s hands are more or less tied. Laker ownership understandably committed to Kobe and the entertainment aspect of the business in 2013 when they signed him to that extension, and ever since the basketball side of things has had to wait.
Until Bryant’s time is done, Mitch Kupchak will have to commit his resources to other noble pursuits. Like trying to figure out how to get two different numbers onto one jersey.
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