Thursday, Aug. 23 is Kobe Bryant's 34th birthday. It's also a reminder of how little time he has left on the NBA stage.
In an interview with Yahoo's Graham Bensinger last month, Bryant was reminded of a comment he made as an 18-year old rookie. At the time, Bryant said he would be retired on a beach somewhere at the age of 35 and in 2012 he still agrees with that assessment, somewhat.
"Still probably accurate..." Bryant said. "I've been playing for 17 years now, so next year will be my 17th and then, when I'm 35, it will be my 18th year in the league. I mean that's a long time to be playing. It will be the last year in my contract, so I don't know. I don't know if I'll play any longer than that."
Bryant currently has a two-year contract which will expire when he is exactly 35. However, given the high level he still performs at in addition to the litany of athletes who can't seem to let go it's fair to assume that he will break that promise to his younger self(Bruce Willis nods in approval).
It's a dangerous idea to even contemplate out loud given how Los Angelians are prone to violent rioting but if the Lakers don't win the NBA title this season, wholesale changes will be made. As convivial as Dwight Howard appeared at his introductory press conference two weeks ago, that doesn't guarantee that he'll return after the season.
The Lakers have an aging core and although Steve Nash is older, Kobe Bryant is the root. Not only will he be the NBA's highest paid player next season by $7 million dollars but he was also the league's second-highest scorer last season and in the final year of his contract, will make $30 million dollars.
It remains to be seen what type of player he will be in by 2013, when he'll be embarking on his 18th NBA campaign. However, if Dwight Howard bolts after testing the free agency waters and leaps into the arms of another franchise with a long-term contract, Los Angeles' championship hopes will have been squashed.
Furthermore, the Lakers may not be willing to pay the exorbitant luxury tax costs heading into the 2013 season when the new luxury tax penalty kicks into hyper drive.
Furthermore, as we learned last week, Bryant's wife, Vanessa, needs a man that can win championships.
Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash may still have enough left in the tank to challenge for a high seed in the Western Conference but barring the development of an youth cream for old knees, ACL's and hairlines they have the athleticism or size to challenge the Thunder, Heat or perhaps even the Clippers. More importantly, Gasol and Bryant will be expiring contracts.
Bryant boldly proclaimed from atop his gold medal Olympic perch that Gasol would stay a Laker as long as he was wearing the blue and yellow but where is it prophesized that Bryant must retire as Laker?
The only thing Bryant has worked harder to do than win his sixth NBA title is to get Vanessa back after she filed for divorce last December. If Dwight Howard leaves, Gaol's expiring contract gets shipped out Vanessa may start working the phones searching for a suitor. Not for Bryant's next contract but for herself.
However, a Bryant trade would be incredibly difficult because of Bryant's unique no-trade clause but in two years Bryant will be a free agent and a volume scorer with value to championship-ready roster.
On Wednesday, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban revealed that in 2007, he attempted to maneuver a trade for Bryant that would not have involved Dirk Nowitzlki. That same summer, a trade that would have sent Bryant to the Chicago Bulls for Luol Deng, Tyrus Thomas, Ben Gordon and then-rookie Joakim Noah fell through because of Bryant's reluctance to include Deng in the deal.
At the age of 32, Bulls legend Michael Jordan considered donning the New York Knicks blue and orange after his eight-year $88 million contract expired in 1996. Jordan retired at the age of 35 but he also returned three years later and played until he was 40.
Bryant says he'll retire in two years but there's no other profession which Bryant's pathological obsession will give him the same level of satisfaction. He could venture into coaching but gifted athletes rarely find the same success. Plus he's got an all-time career scoring title to chase. If Bryant played 80 games a year averaging 23 points per game, he would eclipse Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the 2016-17 season when he would be 38. It's not implausible either. To put that in perspective, Karl Malone was able to average 26 points per game between 34 and 38.
The question remains what uniform would he pursue these accolades in?
Bryant could pull a reverse Fresh Prince and leave sunny California for his hometown Philadelphia where he was endlessly booed after winning the 2002 All-Star Game MVP award. . Time hasn't healed the wounds for Philadelphia but a championship is the elixir. By then, ex-Laker big man Bynum and Jrue Holiday should be among the league's elite. Ironically, Bryant could be final impetus to returning a championship to Philadelphia after his Lakers denied Iverson and the Sixers in 2001.
Bryant spent many of his formative years by his father Joe's side in Italy learning the game, the language and playing soccer. He recently discussed the possibility of finishing his career in Europe. Even Jordan's resume lacks a Euroleague title but most likely Jordan stays in the world's most competitive hoops league.
Bryant has always embraced his villainous role. Signing with the Celtics in the summer of 2013 would be his public relations magnum opus. Their final season would be akin to watching Triple H and The Undertaker's Hell In A Cell match at Wrestlemania 28 on repeat for 82 games. Instead of watching the last hoorah of the WWE's last Attitude era superstars, Bryant and Garnett's pairing could be a championship farewell tour for the fathers of the late preps-to-pros era players. Anything is possible.
At 36, Bryant will be spry enough to contribute to a championship contender and wealthy enough through career earnings and endorsements to play for a bargain price. It's impossible to predict what the NBA landscape will look like at that point but by Bryant's 36th birthday, it's highly unlikely he'll be scheduling a retirement party as well.753524