Kobe Bryant is currently in China on what has become his yearly summer trek, engaging with fans, telling his story, and further embedding himself as the most popular basketballer in Asia. Seriously, when you watch clips of him there or see photos, he’s like a one-man Coachella. The fans there love him and he loves them back.
But while Kobe is planting seeds for future endeavors in China, his present in the US and with the Lakers remains front and center. There are many questions about the team he will return to, his ability to perform on it, and how much time remains in his career to still do it. Marc Spears of Yahoo! caught up with Kobe and got a lot of insight on these topics and more. The entire interview is well worth your time so give the full piece a read, but for our purposes, let’s unpack some of the more pressing questions:
Kobe, on this upcoming season potentially being his last:
“We haven’t set anything in stone and I’ve talked about it before. But could this be the last [season]? Absolutely. It’s tough to decide. It’s really tough to make those types of decisions. Players I have spoken to say, ‘Kobe you will know.’
“I’m making this very simple. Either I like playing the game and going through this process or I don’t. I try to strip it down to the simplest form. Either I like playing some more or I don’t. But I think that decision needs to be made after the season. It’s hard to make a decision like that before the season.”
The part about “going through this process” is something that has come up more and more in recent interviews with Kobe. While he’s always talked about loving the work (and he does that in this interview as well), he’s also begun to actually discuss it like it is work. The long hours, the rehabs, the time spent in the gym and the weight room, I get the sense it is evolving for him.
The shift might be subtle and there is a chance I am overplaying this, but my feeling is that it’s not necessarily who he is as much as it is what he does, now. I’m not in his head, of course, but the nature in which he speaks about the effort required of him to simply maintain his current level (or, in the case of rehabbing, to get back to where he was) isn’t the same as when he was younger and these discussions still centered on getting better and adding something new to keep him on top.
I cannot say how this might translate into any decision after this upcoming season concludes, but as Kobe notes, at some point he will not want to put in the work anymore. Even discussing the work in these terms makes me feel like we are close to that point.
On where the Lakers are right now:
“They have really set themselves up for a promising future going on years. I think they drafted very well. The free agents that we picked are extremely solid, [Roy] Hibbert, [Brandon] Bass, Lou [Williams]. We have a very good mix of young and veteran leadership. The challenge is going to be blending the two and cutting down the learning curve.
“How quickly can we get going? How quickly can we bring up [rookie D’Angelo] Russell, [Julius] Randle. [Jordan] Clarkson got valuable experience last year in playing that will benefit us tremendously. I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to running with these young guns.”
And on whether this Lakers team can make the playoffs:
“Of course it can. Absolutely. We have talented players in their respective positions. We have some really young players. How exactly will the pieces of the puzzle fit? We really don’t know. We are going to [training] camp trying to piece this together just like every other team does. We have to figure out what our strengths are, figure out what our weaknesses are. And every time we step on the court we are going to try to hide our weaknesses and step up to our strengths.”
I combined these two, simply because I think this optimism is both genuine and, in a way, an example of how Kobe’s mind works. Kobe has long been someone who sees the game as a series of solvable problems. This is perfectly illustrated in how he’s dealt with injuries throughout his career — rather than, say, have surgery on a mangled finger, he would rather work with the trainer on innovative tape jobs and wear low profile splints, adjusting his shooting release and finding ways to manage his ball handling in the meantime.
Looking ahead to next year, then, Kobe doesn’t necessarily see inexperience, he sees a question of getting people up to speed faster. He doesn’t other teams as necessarily being that much more talented, he sees a question of fitting the Lakers’ talent together to maximize their strengths (and limit their weaknesses) in order to compete. For Kobe the challenge will never really be overcoming what the other team can do, but what he and his teammates can do to turn the tables and enforce their collective will on the opponent. I have always found this approach fascinating.
Whether Kobe’s confidence and optimism is well placed remains to be seen. The West will be a gauntlet and while teams like the Mavs and Blazers — playoff teams from last year — are likely to take a step back, the Thunder, Pelicans, Jazz, and Suns are anxious to take their places as postseason participants*. The Lakers will be hard pressed to make a big enough leap to join that group.
That said, hearing Kobe’s thoughts on the matter are always worth your time, so, as mentioned, give the entire piece a read. It really does have good insight on several other topics including how money will play a role in his decision to retire and how he’s doing physically after another summer of rehab.
*The Pelicans actually made the playoffs last year. The Thunder, if healthy, have a top 4 roster in the West. In theory, this would leave only one playoff spot available if next season follows any of the trends from this past one.