For a player defined by an insatiable appetite for superiority, Kobe Bryant was dealt a major blow by the departure of Dwight Howard. Not because of who left his Los Angeles Lakers, but what Howard took with him: Bryant’s last best chance at another NBA championship.
Though already 34 years and 316 days old, and only three months into his recovery from a torn left Achilles, Bryant told the Lakers’ team Web site last week that he intends to play, at a high level, for at least three more years in the hopes of pushing "the rings count out a little further." That prospect obviously takes a hit in the wake of Howard’s decision to sign a free-agent contract with the Houston Rockets. Which is why, despite the notorious mismatch in personality and outlook with his now-former superstar running mate, Bryant plunked himself down in Beverly Hills last week with the rest of the Lakers strike force to try to coax Howard into staying put. Even amidst all the tumult of last season, a zened-out Bryant would preach patience and staying the course, because doing so represented the only route to winning and aiding his legacy-defining ring quest.
But while the literal wins are sure to decline without Howard, at least in the immediate, Bryant once again comes away from a Lakers free-agency scare a winner. Because like in 2004, when he was the one threatening to walk, the outcome leaves the Lakers constructed very much in his image.
When Bryant re-upped in Los Angeles nine years ago, after the departures of Shaq and Phil Jackson, the Lakers effectively traded in a team built for contention for one that prioritized Bryant. With Lamar Odom and Caron Butler next to him, Bryant’s usage rate and scoring average rose slightly from the previous season, and then, when Jackson returned to the fold the following year, soared to what still stand as career highs. The Lakers accumulated just four playoff wins in the three seasons after he signed his new contract, which then led to roundabout trade demands spurred by his own impatience with the franchise. But Bryant got what he wanted: most notably, out from under the "sidekick" label.
An older, wiser and less-guarded Bryant appears more in tune with the big picture these days. Despite how sharp and tone deaf his message to Dwight was in their sitdown last week, the words that surfaced read more as an attempt to inspire than scare away. Lately, Bryant has sentimentalized his position in Lakers lore, particularly after the death of owner Jerry Buss, who twice talked him off the ledge when he was thinking hard about leaving the franchise, and his pitch appears driven as much by "Been there, bro" wisdom as it does personal gain.
Howard, of course, chose a better chance at future titles over being a part of a history filled with past titles, and as a result, Bryant’s fast-closing window for that coveted sixth ring only grows smaller. But what he got from Howard, who was quickly denounced as a villain by Lakers sympathizers (if he wasn't there already), is the kind of consolation Bryant, in particular, should appreciate: the chance to wear the white hat and save the day.
The Bryant preparing to enter his 18th season is a monolith, ingratiating himself to the fan at large more and more with every curse-word-laced quote and odds-defying pull-up jumper. In this age of quantifiable fact, he is our antihero, and he has already won over a large chunk of the public by swinging his big tween stick at Howard on the interwebs, unfollowing him on Twitter and Instagramming a photo of him soldiering on with best bud Pau Gasol soon after word of Howard's choice was announced.
Now picture what awaits Bryant this season: He's coming off a career-threatening injury, one he’ll probably come back from way earlier than expected; playing for a crestfallen, prestigious franchise that’s already being counted out; alongside sympathetic, good-guy sidekicks in the twilight of their careers; for a coach who encourages a fast pace and heaps of possessions.
Bryant has spent his entire career finding motivation from anyone and anything he could find; he was already ticked off at potential doubters the night he tore his Achilles. Next season offers up a typhoon of adversaries for him to overcome.
Age, one of the important factors in Howard’s decision, is already at the top of Bryant's list.
"I think the [Achilles] injury has something to do with it. It really increased the drive. And probably San Antonio getting so close to winning No. 5, probably hurt me a little bit, too," Bryant explained to Lakers.com’s Mike Trudell about his three-more-years declaration. "I want to make sure I push the ring count out a little further. It was really, really close there. They played phenomenally well. But it's a testament to what skill can do. To what us old guys can do if you play together, if you play with one mind and one purpose you can accomplish great things. It was inspirational for me and hopefully inspirational for the city of Los Angeles and this organization of what we can do, how this tide can change fairly quickly, and we'll be looking at a parade."
The Spurs’ success in the face of annual questions over how long they can win is deservedly hailed around the league, particularly with the rise of so-called super teams. As Bryant indicates, it has even become a bellwether for aging giants like himself.
With Howard gone and the Lakers looking more like the Spurs than the super team they feigned to be last season, there is an opportunity for Bryant to reach similar unexpected heights, to push the Lakers into the playoffs and prove himself against the one force larger than anything he can conjure up.
It may not result in a championship, but for Bryant, the opportunity presented by the loss of Howard is indeed a victory.