The end is coming. We all know it. If we’re honest, Kobe Bryant’s shocking tear of his Achilles’ this season gave us pause, if only for a moment. For a split second you allowed your mind to wander. Is this it? Is this how it ends? What do we do now? We waited for his response and then were relieved that Bryant viewed the injury as yet another challenge, yet another line in the sand etched to goad a maniacal competitor to overcome.
Kobe isn’t retiring just yet. In fact he might stay around a number of years past this upcoming season. He’s roughly 7,000 points away from the all time scoring record. He still has championships to win to fulfill his legacy. That’s great and we are all looking forward to this latest chapter in the best career a guard in the NBA has ever had, the Hank Aaron of basketball. But it’s time Lakers Nation found his replacement.
Magic Johnson’s retirement came abruptly. There was no young perimeter star being groomed to take over the team in 1991, which lead to some lean years for the Lakers in the early 90’s. The team has an opportunity to do it right this time. They have the opportunity, over the next couple of seasons, to draft or acquire a young player under the age of 21 that can learn by Kobe’s side. What better way for Bryant to leave the franchise than by winning another championship and mentoring the Laker’s next superstar?
What about Dwight Howard? Isn’t that what Kobe is already doing? Well yes and no. Dwight is a major foundation of the Lakers’ future if he is ready to accept that responsibility, but he’ll never be Kobe’s replacement. The future face of the franchise will be a dynamic perimeter player, as it has always been.
Trades or free agent signings for young veterans is a short term fix. Demar Derozan won’t do. Paul George isn’t coming here. What the Lakers need is a prospect that the fans can take ownership of. Someone whose potential unfolds in glimpses, promising a bright future. Someone who through hard work and mentoring becomes elite and the organization builds around for a decade.
When Andrew Bynum was drafted he rarely played but Phil Jackson put him in against Shaquille O’Neal during his rookie season to see what Bynum was made of. O’Neal dunked on him and embarrassed the kid, but Bynum picked himself up and immediately sprinted downcourt to the right block and demanded the ball. He unfurled a “dream shake” and finished with a dunk and impetuous bump of Shaq. Ok, Lakers Nation we have a player! He was raw but you knew the tools were there to be great. The Lakers need that juice again.
A fan base can be spoiled by success and tainted with expectations to the point that there is no longer any joy in the seasons. We viewed the past season as a disaster without acknowledging how hard the players tried.
Bryant, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace, Steve Nash, and Dwight Howard fought through injury and fatigue to make the playoffs after a disastrous start. World Peace returned to the court just a few days after knee surgery. Bryant was among the leaders in minutes in his 17th season. Nash gave up the ball to Bryant and kept quiet. Howard played through a back injury and shoulder problem, and Gasol fought off knee problems and a torn plantar fascia.
But they kept coming back to get the team over the hump. In an era where players shut it down over minor discomforts, the Lakers’ veterans showed valor. But we didn’t care. We wanted another ring. No excuses.
A young, elite prospect would inject much needed hope and patience into a franchise that has spoiled both its fans and detractors with its consistency. Kobe Bryant, and Magic before him, gave us that boy into a man narrative that made each championship meaningful, and that’s why their connection to the team, the city, and its fans are so deeply entrenched.
There’s no better way to say goodbye to Bryant than by allowing him to pass his best qualities along to the next face of the franchise. Am I talking about Andrew Wiggins or Dante Exum or Karl Towns? We don’t know yet who that mythical young player will be, but we should know by now that we need someone to refresh the stale air of decline.