Kobe Bryant, who helped guide the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA titles, has announced that he will retire at the conclusion of the 2015-2016 season. The decision is unsurprising given his struggles this season and on a Lakers' squad that has sunk to new lows with the worst record in the Western Conference.
The 37-year-old leaves behind an amazing body of work. Bryant is the No. 3 all-time leading scorer, a 17-time All-Star, a two-time NBA Finals MVP, a regular-season MVP, a nine-time NBA All-Defensive First Team member, a two-time scoring champion, and once scored 81 points in a game.
It was only in the 2015-2016 season that Bryant's skills showed a major dip. The 20-year-veteran failed to get much lift on his outside shots, his once-uncanny ability to create space for his shot became a distant memory, and he struggled to penetrate with any efficiency. Bryant has shot a dreadful 31.5 percent from the field, and is averaging just 15.2 points per game. In a recent game against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, Bryant shot just 1-of-15 from the field.
Indeed, this was not the same Bryant who once was the most feared scorer in the league. There was a perception that he eventually would break out of this slump, but in a lost season for the Lakers, the ultra-competitive Bryant didn't appear to have much left in him despite some very rare flashes of "the Black Mamba."
"I thought he probably at least had another year in him," head coach Byron Scott said. "What I want from Kobe is basically his last game be able to walk off the court and wave to all the fans and be able to go into the locker room standing up."
Scott wasn't alone in thinking Bryant had more in the tank, and that there was some hope he could be bolstered by an improved supporting cast next season. According to ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, Bryant had entered the season "actually considering playing a couple of more years in the event that he is still fresh and young enough ... because he only played 41 games in the previous two years." Smith said he was surprised that, due to Bryant's commitment to playing top-level basketball, he would even play out the rest of the season.
As Bryant takes his final curtain call, there will be understandable chatter about his legacy and comparisons to his idol Michael Jordan. From Bryant's rookie season, the similarities were obvious. With his shaved head, his 6-foot-6 height, his lanky frame and his effortless form, there was no mistaking Bryant's overt attempts to mimic the greatest perimeter player to ever lace up high tops.
Inevitably, Bryant fell short of Jordan. Jordan won six titles, Bryant won five. Jordan won five MVP awards, while Bryant won just one. Jordan was an All-Defensive Player of the Year, and Bryant never won the award. Jordan never lost in the NBA Finals, and Bryant lost twice. Jordan shot over 50 percent from the field over his career, while Bryant shot 45 percent.
But the statistics and awards failed to tell the whole story. Whereas Jordan's competitive spirit further glorified his already untouchable reputation, Bryant's drive alienated teammates, fueled his vocal detractors, and even created a well-documented rift with superstar center Shaquille O'Neal. In an age of TMZ and the ever-growing mass media, Bryant often seemed like a target, while Jordan managed to escape relatively unscathed.
With Nike spearheading a marketing campaign that made Jordan seem almost immune to criticism, there was noticeable shortage of vitriol directed at "His Airness." Perhaps because of Bryant's intense aspiration to be compared to Jordan, "the second coming" was afforded no such luxury by the general public. The feud with O'Neal, and later a sexual assault trial in Colorado, added more reason for Jordan supporters to denounce Bryant and strengthen their stance that Jordan had no peers.
There were also the cries of selfishness directed at Bryant, whose 4.8 career assist average didn't dissuade talk that he was a ball hog. Critics were also quick to point out that Bryant ranks as the NBA's all-time leader in missed shots. There were reports of Bryant clashing with lesser-known players, and how Phil Jackson, who coached both Jordan and Bryant, became increasingly exhausted by his stubbornness.
Yet, as polarizing as Bryant has been, and how his attempts to overcome Jordan's shadows were in vain, his legacy is firmly intact. Bryant has a ring for every finger on his hand, while many of the past legends and his contemporaries are not even a stone's throw from equaling his team success. As LeBron James has twice basked in the glow of the Larry O'Brien Trophy, and while defending champion Stephen Curry drains three-pointers and Kevin Durant appears destined to have his time in the sun, they are all chasing Bryant. It is only Tim Duncan, a player with a vastly different playing style, that can challenge Bryant as the most accomplished player in the post-Jordan era.
Meanwhile, Bryant matched Magic Johnson in NBA titles, and blew past Larry Bird's three rings. Lakers legend Jerry West, the man who drafted Bryant in 1996 and the best shooting guard of his era, won just one title and had Elgin Baylor by his side for almost his entire career. What does it say of Bryant when taking into account the countless other basketball legends who never won a ring?
There are 67 more games of Bryant on a miserable Lakers team. Many will watch with mixed emotions. There will be some who will feel a sense of satisfaction that he won't retire with the elusive sixth ring to draw him even with Jordan. There will be others who will feel cheated by the basketball gods that such a talented and tenacious competitor is taking his final ovation on a lottery-bound team.
Bryant won't go out as "the greatest." That's reserved for Jordan. But Bryant bows out as among the best to have ever played, and that should be good enough.