Vino does get better with age, but his recent rash of injuries points to an aging superstar whose better days are behind him.
In 2003, Kobe Bryant was going through a myriad of issues off the court. There was talk of his jealousy toward teammates, talk of a feud between Bryant and soon to be former head coach Phil Jackson, and the Los Angeles Lakers were unknowingly about to lose the services of one of the best NBA big men of all time as Shaquille O'Neal prepped the runway for his departure while the organization committed to Kobe. In July of that year Kobe Bryant faced charges for sexual assault against a hotel worker in Colorado. After his acquittal of the charges in 2004, transcript records released by the police revealed that Bryant had fingered O'Neal as being unfaithful in his marriage while being interrogated. This bit of information would not go over well with Shaq fans. Despite these blemishes on his street cred and commercial marketability, Bryant would lose himself in basketball and spend the better part of the next decade becoming the best player in the NBA.
In 1999, Kobe's game took yet another quantum leap toward greatness. His array of scoring moves off the dribble seemed to multiply exponentially as defender after hapless defender was left cowering in his wake.
In this, his fourth and fifth seasons as a professional, O'Neal and Bryant would win the second and third of their NBA championships together. In 2001, the Los Angeles Lakers would beat a Philadelphia 76ers team led by Allen Iverson 4-1. Shaq and Kobe would average 30.4 and 29.4 respectively. Their combined scoring average placed them among the top five scoring duos in the history of the NBA Finals. Their unquestioned dominance went unchallenged in 2002 as well.
The Kobe-Shaq combination would win one more championship in 2002 after sweeping the Jason Kidd-led New Jersey Nets 4-0.
The following season, the Kobe-Shaq feud that had gone largely unheard in the media since 2001 was born anew as Kobe called out Shaq for being out of shape, exaggerating the extent of his injuries to cover up being out of shape, and for threatening to not play hard if he wasn't passed the ball more during the 2002-2003 series, the Lakers bid for a four-peat was squashed by the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Semifinals.
The 2003-2004 season would end in disappointment as well as a cocky and self-assured Los Angeles Lakers squad would lose to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals. Los Angeles would lose the series in what would be jokingly described as "the first 5 game sweep in the history of the NBA Finals". The Lakers would lose 4 games to 1. Afterwards, claims of a ball-hogging Bryant were ignited anew.
After the loss in the Finals, head coach Phil Jackson retired.
There was a tremendous amount of speculation circulating regarding Bryant's role in his departure. At the All Star break, Jackson would draw first blood in stating he would not return to coach the Lakers if Kobe returned. Shaq, after learning of Jackson's departure, and hearing G.M. Mitch Kupchak say he was looking to move him, demanded to be traded.
"The direction they’re going ... I don’t want to be a part of this," the Albany Herald quoted Shaq as saying.
Shaquille O'Neal would eventually be shipped to the Miami Heat for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a first-round draft pick. After briefly flirting with the Los Angeles Clippers, Bryant would re-sign with the Lake Show for seven years, $137 million.
O'Neal added, "When it came to my leaving, [Kobe] could have spoken up. He could have said something. He didn't say anything." assistant coach Tex Winter said, "[O'Neal] left because he couldn't get what he wanted—a huge pay raise. There was no way ownership could give him what he wanted. Shaq's demands held the franchise hostage, and the way he went about it didn't please the owner too much".
After Shaq's departure it was clear that Laker's ownership was all in on Kobe Bryant. Increasingly, his pedigree would be compared more and more to that of Michael Jordan. No longer was he simply mimicking Jordan's scoring ability. Bryant was increasingly known as a lockdown defender and was named to the first of nine first team NBA All-Defense teams in 2000.
It was becoming increasingly clear that he was the second coming of His Airness, despite his assertions to the contrary. While Bryant would say he copied the games of all the great, big guards who came before him, Michael Jordan seemed to believe otherwise.
"I don't think I would lose," Jordan said of playing modern NBA superstars in a game of one-on-one in the video promoting NBA 2K14, before smiling and adding, "Other than to Kobe Bryant because he steals all of my moves."
Ironically, despite his alleged role in the departure of Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant would spend the better part of the next three years searching for a suitable "Robin" to his "Batman". First it appeared as though versatile forward Lamar Odom was the clear choice, but he rarely played to his considerable talents.
The Zen Master Phil Jackson would return to the Lakers amid great fanfare in the 2005-2006 season. In the meantime, Shaquille O'Neal would win an NBA title alongside his new Robin Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat in 2006. Bryant and the Lakers would not enjoy much postseason success, but Bryant would set a franchise mark for most points scored in a game with 81 points versus the Toronto Raptors.
The mark placed him second all time behind Wilt Chamberlain's 100 point game for most points scored in a game. But it was glaringly apparent that, no matter how many points he scored, Kobe needed help to return to the pinnacle of the NBA.
With the late season acquisition of All-Star power forward Paul Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies late in the 2007-2008 season the Lakers would return to the NBA Finals only to be defeated in six games by the Boston Celtics.
After a full season with Gasol in the fold, and an increasingly productive Andrew Bynum gaining confidence on a nightly basis, Bryant and the the Lakers would win two NBA Finals championships in 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, giving him one more championship than former teammate turned rival Shaquille O'Neal.
It is at this point in his career that Bryant's place in the hoops hierarchy was secured. He is easily among the top 10 best players in NBA history, perhaps even top five. But that wasn't enough for Bryant. His competitive drive would not be satiated until another title was brought to Los Angeles.
In the coming years, head coach Phil Jackson would retire for a second time, Andrew Bynum would bristle under the strain of being a Los Angeles Laker and would be dealt to make room for another center--Dwight Howard. Lamar Odom would be moved to the Dallas Mavericks during the 2011 offseason and Paul Gasol, though still as skilled as ever, seemed to fade when needed most and was the subject of multiple trade rumors that never came to fruition. The Lakers were quickly falling from respectability.
In 2012, the Lakers would try to replicate the Shaq effect with the addition of Dwight Howard. From the very beginning it was clear that Howard was not used to living in the pressure cooker. It is safe to say he had never come across an individual whose desire to win rivaled Bryant's. Despite overtures from Kobe and the Los Angeles Lakers urging Howard to return to Los Angeles after he became a free agent, he preferred instead to become a Houston Rocket following the 2012-2013 season.
It would appear that Bryant had chased away yet another big man. However, appearances are often deceiving. It was Howard who chose to leave. Kobe, to his credit, had always said that he and Howard had to figure out how to work with one another. Howard apparently didn't want any parts of that. In August 2013, information leaked to the media that Dwight Howard actually wanted head coach Mike D'Antoni fired and Kobe Bryant amnestied as conditions of his return. Instead, Bryant was given a two-year deal worth $48 million in November 2013.
Talks with various people close to the situation make it clear there were two prerequisites for Dwight Howard to remain a Laker: fire Mike D’Antoni and amnesty, or at the very least muzzle, Kobe Bryant.
The Lakers apparently asked Dwight to be patient on both fronts for at least another season, telling him “hey, you’re going to have to gut this out another year,” a source said, although it sounds as if VP of basketball ops Jim Buss isn’t ready to abandon Kobe anytime soon. “Dwight didn’t want to play with Kobe for 2-3 more years,” Buss said. “I’m going to stand behind Kobe because of his history with the franchise.”
35-years-old isn't that old as far as the general population is concerned, but it's considered ancient for NBA shooting guards. Bryant has played more than half his life in the NBA and the wear and tear has become increasingly apparent over the past three years. In 2011 Bryant traveled to Germany for a procedure to combat osteoarthritis of the knee. Fans would jokingly say that Bryant had a cyborg knee because of his renewed explosiveness and youthful athleticism following the procedure.
The man formerly known as the Black Mamba would be affectionately known as Vino because it appeared as though his game aged like fine wine. However, time is indeed the great equalizer. Bryant was averaging 27 points per game when he suffered a ruptured Achilles injury in April 2013. Kobe Bryant would not see the court again until early December 2013 and his performance would be a mixed bag of good and mediocrity. But it was still Kobe, he was still a Titan and it was only a matter of time before he would return to form...only a matter of time.
In what is being described as a compensatory injury, Kobe Bryant fractured his left tibia against the Memphis Grizzlies and will miss an additional six weeks this season. The injured tibia is on the same leg as his prior Achilles injury. The combined effects of the aforementioned injuries, as well as his arthritic right knee, will mean a Kobe Bryant whose athletic abilities will make him but a shell of the player he was prior to being injured in April 2013.
Can he still be counted on to score 25 points a night and defend the best wing player on the opposite team? Only time will tell. NBA Hall of Famer Isaiah Thomas would retire after rupturing his Achilles in 1995, but Bryant would not be turned away by something as simple as that.
But with the new injury to his tibia Bryant has to be aware of the possibility that he will not be even close to the player he once was. Will his legendary competitive drive be enough to will Los Angeles to yet another championship, or will these next three seasons show a Black Mamba whose production is less than half of what it once was? How sad that would be for fans who didn't get a chance to see him in his prime.
Despite the fact that Bryant will ultimately be slower, less athletic and older upon his return, it is nearly impossible for me to count him out just yet. But the question of his retirement looms heavy on the minds of basketball fans every where due to multiple injuries on the same leg over a relative short time period.
Depending on Kobe's production following his return from a fractured tibia, it is feasible that this could be the beginning of the end for Kobe. At the end of the day, the accolades of Bryant fall short of those of Michael Jordan. However, being second to MJ is nothing to be upset about. But that is clearly not enough for the ultra competitive Bryant. The next two years might be the very last time we get to see Kobe Bryant perform at a level close to what we are used to. Upon his return to the court in six weeks fans would be wise to catch all they can. Sure, the mantle of NBA's greatest has been handed over to LeBron James, but there will never be another Kobe "Bean, Black Mamba, Vino" Bryant.
CHECK OUT PART 1 HERE