Two years after it looked like the Los Angeles Lakers had the type of talent to help Kobe Bryant win his sixth championship with the additions of perennial All-Stars Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to a lineup that included Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace.
Since, Nash has had back issues that will likely end his career, Howard went to Houston in the summer of 2013, Gasol joined Chicago this past offseason, Peace declined rapidly and is now in the Chinese Basketball Association, and the Lakers have had three head coaches in that time span (Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni, and Byron Scott to start this season). The past couple of years were tough on Bryant as well, with the 16-time All-Star tearing his achilles late in the 2012-2013 regular season, and enduring a long rehab that only allowed him to play six games on the season when a tibial plateau fracture ended his year.
Though he is back on the floor to start the 2014-15 campaign, his supporting cast has taken more hits, as the No.7 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft, rookie forward Julius Randle, broke his right tibia in the team’s season opener against the Houston Rockets, now leaving Bryant to work with Jordan Hill, Carlos Boozer, Wesley Johnson, Jeremy Lin, and a now very depleted bench. Despite this, Byrant has averaged 24.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game in the team’s first four games, including 31 against the Phoenix Suns last Wednesday, and is doing all this playing only 32 minutes per game (career average of 36.6) and with two back-to-backs with just a day in between.
But the Lakers have struggled immensely despite his contributions, losing all four of their matchups to Western Conference playoff contenders (Rockets, Suns, Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriots) by a combined 68 points (average margin of defeat being 17 points), allowing a league-worst 118 points per game, which is 12.5 more than the next closest team (Brooklyn Nets). The early struggles have made some question whether Bryant, who is used to constant appearances in the postseason and has won five championships, with last the extent of his contract (through the 2015-16 season) with the Lakers.
Byrant currently has a no-trade clause in his contract, but as one of the premier players and faces in the NBA, he could force a move to another franchise if he wanted. The 36 year-old future Hall of Famer that has found a way to play through age, injury, and personal tribulation throughout his career is not going to let the frustration losing on the court change where he wants to finish his career, however (from Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports):
“I hear the chatter of Kobe should ask out and he should go and play for a contender in this latter stage of his career,” Bryant told Yahoo Sports. “But that’s not what I do. I’m extremely loyal to the Lakers.
“I believe in fighting through the tough times as well as enjoying the good times. It’s my responsibility to get us to be the best that we can be. It’s important that we approach that on a day-to-day basis.”
“We can’t get discouraged by it,” Bryant said. “It’s a very long season. You just have to stay the course. Keep on looking to improve, keep on looking to get better and things will eventually break.
“I’ve enjoyed a great amount of success here. You can’t just enjoy the successful times and then run away from the bad ones. No, I don’t even think about [departing]. I’m a Laker.”
“I stand behind them 110 percent. I bleed purple and gold.”
Bryant has dazzled with his trademark fallaway shots, but he has also shown that he can get to the rim like few others in the league can, as illustrated in the dunk that he had against the rival Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night.
Bryant told Spears that he prepared immensely to get physically ready for the upcoming season, and he has a message for Laker fans losing confidence due to the team’s recent struggles:
“I knew I was ready, I was healthy and my skill was there,” Bryant said. “I did everything possible and that’s the important thing. Everything I could control, diet, training, stretching, therapy. …I did everything physically possible.
“I do have a lot of comfort in the fact that I didn’t try to take a lot of shortcuts and because of that my body feels great.”
Lakers fans have enjoyed 16 titles and aren’t accustomed to losing. Bryant offered a message to the frustrated fans.
“You have to understand there is nothing you can do with what’s transpired,” Bryant said. “You have to move on to tomorrow. Right? You have to. Kicking and screaming is not going to do anything.
“Lakers fans know it’s a process. Things can turn pretty quickly. We’ve seen it there before. If there is anything we’re relying on, we’re relying on our history, what we’ve been able to accomplish and how quickly we are able to turn things around.”
Rare is it that an athlete will have the opportunity to play as a professional in his sport for 20 years. It is far less likely that the individual will play for one franchise during that entire time, but if Bryant plays next season for the Lakers, which he is under contract to do season, he will pass John Stockton for the longest-tenured NBA player for a single franchise at 20 years, with Tim Duncan currently right behind Bryant at 18 years and Dirk Nowitski at 17.
Though there are doubters of how much Kobe Bryant can do at 36 and what his Laker teammates will do alongside him, the all-time great exudes a confidence and perseverance that no athlete outside of Michael Jordan can match, and he will continue to show it.
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