The assumed end for Kobe Bryant will come on a Wednesday night in April at Staples Center. April 13, to be exact, when the Utah Jazz visit Kobe’s Los Angeles Lakers for the final regular-season game of Kobe’s 20th (and farewell) season.
It is more than conceivable that our last dose of Kobe hooping at the highest level could actually come in August, with those goodbye waves and thankful blown kisses to the crowd dispatched from atop a medal stand.
The sheer math of it will undoubtedly make the mere suggestion sound outlandish to some. Give a roster spot to the battered Bryant for the Rio Olympics? With such a deep pool of players to pick from?
Just trust me: No. 24 will draw serious consideration from USA Basketball elders Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski -- two of the biggest Kobe fans on Planet Roundball -- if Bryant makes it to the summer in reasonably good health and makes himself available to be chosen.
After Colangelo and Coach K's decade together in charge of the national team, it is well understood within the USAB inner sanctum that assembling a squad for the Olympics does not mean simply picking the 12 most talented players. Not for the competition that, unlike the FIBA World Cup, typically attracts every top American name in the game.
Not when the coach has only 40 minutes per game to dole out.
The 11th and 12th men, and maybe even the 10th man, can reasonably expect to do much more watching than playing. Which helps explain why USAB, in similar circumstances, brought Jason Kidd to the Beijing Games in 2008 at age 35.
Kidd averaged 1.6 points and 2.0 assists per game for that Olympic team. He wasn’t there because his country needed him on the floor. He was there because Krzyzewski loved the leadership/presence/mentoring he could offer to the rest of the team as a virtual coach in uniform.
And that’s the same sort of role USAB would offer Bryant, at 37, if that's what makes sense for both sides at season’s end.
Colangelo, Krzyzewski and USAB executive Sean Ford have made it clear that they intend to use the whole NBA season to evaluate all of their options, since they're arguably staring at the hardest cut-down to 12 in the history of the program.
LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, John Wall, Jimmy Butler and Dwight Howard ... there’s a quick 20 names off the top of our heads to throw at you just to get the dissection and debate started. There are so many different ways USAB can go, while also allowing for the usual disclaimers that injuries and contractual conundrums that arise between now and the end of June will inevitably make some of the decisions for them.
In general, though, USAB officials like to see an old head (a la Kidd in 2008) or a fresh-faced future star (like The Brow suiting up at the 2012 Olympics before he had ever spent a minute in the NBA) on the end of the bench. It's proven to be a wiser approach than stuffing the roster with a dozen dudes who merit major minutes, which would only set Krzyzewski up to find two or three of them seething about sitting.
What the USAB folks won't (and obviously can’t) say, meanwhile, is that the threat of losing in Rio isn't nearly what it was in Beijing or London. As we've lamented in this space more than once since the 2014 FIBA World Cup, we've actually hit a bumpy patch worldwide where the gap between Team USA and the rest of the world is regrettably widening when it should be shrinking. Once-mighty Spain is aging and no other country in circulation has been able to establish itself as a foe that can legitimately steal a gold-medal game from the Yanks.
Which is to say that there is absolutely zero basketball risk in giving Kobe a seat on the plane to Brazil at the expense of a player who presumably has more to contribute numbers-wise.
We repeat: Consider this a Stein Line Live-engraved guarantee that the United States, no matter who else it sees in the 12-team tournament next Aug. 5-21, will be collecting another round of gold medals on Aug. 21, 2016.
So why not let Bryant, two days before his 38th birthday, go out in glory?
Maybe he won't be healthy enough to play top-level basketball in July (when USAB convenes for training camp) and August. Maybe he won’t have the requisite emotional fuel to even put his name forward for Olympic consideration. Maybe Bryant will ultimately decide, after becoming the first player in league history to spend 20 seasons with the same team, that he wants our last meaningful glimpse of him to be in Lakers colors.
Yet you can rest assured that bringing Bryant to Brazil isn't going to hurt the team one whit. It’s likewise a safe assumption that playing with all those American stars, as well as that shorter 3-point line, would help Kobe look a lot better than he has in this opening quarter of his swan song in Lakerland, where he's been plagued by a lack of explosion to create openings for shots on top of his own stubbornness ... but also the sort of proven talent around him to make the game a little easier.
I know, I know. I hear the Kobe Haters in the audience shouting: How many farewell tours does this guy need? The Lakers have 64 games left on their schedule. There’s every chance Bryant will be voted in to start in the All-Star Game in Toronto on Feb. 14. Do we really have to send him to the Olympics, too?
We don’t have to.
It has to be right for everyone involved.
Yet if you’ve had the privilege to follow Team USA around with Ambassador Kobe decked out in red, white and blue, and thus seeing how much he means to basketball fans abroad with his top-10-ish of all-time resume and his flawless Italian and Spanish, you can’t help but be intrigued by the idea.
Especially when you’re an unapologetically sappy basketball romantic like moi.
The Pacers, amid their stunning 12-5 start, have made swingman Solomon Hill available via trade, according to league sources. A first-round draftee as recently as 2013, Hill is out there after falling out of favor in Indiana despite playing in all 82 games last season and averaging 29.0 minutes in 2014-15 for the old, plodding Pacers. ... Tough news in Boston: Brad Stevens says Marcus Smart's injury absence will be longer than anticipated, potentially stretching into the new year. According to one trusted scout, Smart’s hounding perimeter D makes him “the new Tony Allen -- he simply refuses to be screened.” ... With the recent release of Martell Webster to open up a roster spot for Ryan Hollins, Washington is now paying $5,623,500 to players this season who aren’t on the roster. That equates to 6.8 percent of the Wizards’ current $82.2 million payroll, which puts them at No. 3 in the league’s Dead Money Standings, narrowly ahead of Brooklyn. Detroit is at No. 2, with $9.4 million -- or 12.2 percent of its $76.7 million payroll -- going to five waived players, most notably Josh Smith ($5.4 million) and Danny Granger ($2.2 million). No team, of course, can compare to the 76ers, who are paying $25.9 million this season -- or 43.2 percent of Philly’s $59.9 million outlay overall -- to eight players who were let go before the season started. JaVale McGee and Gerald Wallace, acquired by the Sixers in deals that cleared cap space for other teams and released soon thereafter, soak up $22 million of that total.
Your obligatory Steph Curry update: The NBA’s Golden Child has six 40-point games already this season after just three in his entire MVP season in 2014-15. He’s also already earned six fourth quarters of total rest in the Warriors’ first 20 games and is scoring 37.8 percent of his points this season in the third quarter. In total, Curry has rung up 640 points in 685 minutes on a mere 403 shots, while averaging 11.1 3-pointer attempts per game. The single-season record for 3s per game is Baron Davis’ 8.7 in 2003-04. ... Can’t say I know exactly what the Sixers’ young players are going through, but I think I have an inkling. A 15-game (or more) losing streak to start one’s NBA career is not exclusive to Jahlil Okafor and T.J. McConnell, nor last season’s unfortunate Philly rooks Nerlens Noel and K.J. McDaniels. The Clippers once had a trio of rookies who began their careers with an 0-16 nightmare: Lamond Murray, Eric Piatkowski and Matt Fish in 1994-95. And I will never forget it because it was my first full season on the NBA beat for the Los Angeles Daily News. ... As covered recently in this space, Bryant says he doesn’t have any plans to satiate his fans abroad by playing a season in Italy or China when he’s done with the NBA. But playing in the Olympics could serve as that farewell to the international basketball public, which Bryant addressed in a Friday morning visit on ESPN Radio with Mike and Mike, saying: “Obviously I grew up overseas and have seen basketball grow globally. It’s come so far, so fast. (I) would love nothing more to be in an international environment and be around so many other great athletes one more time. That being said, it’s not something I’m obsessing over, either, because I’ve got to listen to my body, too. If my body can’t do it, there’s no sense in doing it. So God willing, hopefully, if they feel I can make a significant contribution and my body is up for it ... if that’s the case then I would love to play.”
Kevin McHale’s 11 games in Houston before his dismissal are the second fewest in league history for a coach who returned to his team after a conference finals appearance in the previous season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only Gene Shue’s six games with Philadelphia in the 1977-78 account for a shorter stay. McHale, mind you, was just 11 games into a new three-year contract.
Fewest Games Coached, Season Following Conference Finals
1977-78: Philadelphia’s Gene Shue -- 6
2015-16: Houston’s Kevin McHale -- 11
1998-99: L.A. Lakers’ Del Harris -- 12
1956-57: Syracuse’s Al Cervi -- 12
PS -- The last coach before McHale not to make it through the following season, after a trip to at least the conference finals, was Miami’s Stan Van Gundy in 2005-06. Van Gundy led Miami to the 2005 East finals before resigning 21 games into the next season and was famously succeeded by Pat Riley, who wound up leading the Heat to a championship after they fell into a 2-0 hole to Dallas in the NBA Finals.