— Some professional athletes spend their entire careers in the quest for a ring, only to come away empty-handed. By contrast, Kobe Bryant is full-handed. He’s got five rings, and if the one for the thumb doesn’t exactly fit comfortably, he’ll tough it out.
So he should be very proud. He should consider himself fortunate. And he should realize that there won’t be a sixth. He won’t tie Michael Jordan, much less surpass him for second all-time behind Bill Russell's 11. He just won’t.
The Lakers were eliminated by the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night in Game 5 of their NBA Western Conference semifinal series, 106-90. There will be lots of post-debacle analysis over Kobe’s role in the team’s overall demise. There are usually two distinct camps: those who think Kobe hogs the ball, thereby grinding the team’s offense to a halt at critical stages of big games, and those who believe Kobe dominating the basketball late in playoff contests is the surest path to victory.
It really doesn’t matter, though. It’s wasted breath. There is a cold, practical, analytical way of looking at Kobe’s chances of winning another championship, and it’s a grim picture for him — if he finishes his career in a Laker uniform, of course. The Lakers would be well advised to accept this and consider their options.
Granted, it is unlikely the Lakers will cut the cord with their superstar. There are emotions involved, as well as marketing concerns. But the sobering truth is that if they don’t, they’re doomed to a future together filled with early vacations.
Kobe is gradually slowing down, despite his 42 points on Monday night. It happens to all professional athletes. He’ll be 34 at the start of next season. More important, he has 16 years worth of NBA hardwood pounding on his body. He doesn’t drive to the basket as often as he once did. He relies mostly on jump shots.
This year during the regular season he shot 43 percent, his lowest since his second year in the league. In the final minutes of losses in Games 2 and 4 to OKC, he made uncharacteristic mistakes and took poor shots, probably at least partly due to fatigue.
In short, he needs more help, he doesn’t have it, and he won’t get it. Or should I say, he won’t get it in time. The Lakers eventually will revamp their roster and return to a place among the elite. All you have to do is look at their history to see the pattern. They’ve won 16 championships, so they have a habit of winning. Also, they’re the glamour team in L.A., they charge lots of money for tickets, and they can’t keep doing that if they put an inferior product on the floor.
The point is they won’t do it while Kobe is still around.
Everybody is gushing over the San Antonio Spurs, and the praise is well-deserved. The Spurs successfully re-tooled, and now some think this is the best Spurs team ever. But San Antonio last won an NBA title in 2007. It took five years to climb back to the summit (and obviously they’re not there quite yet). Five years. In 2008, the Spurs followed their championship by losing, 4-1, to the Lakers in the conference finals. In ’09, they went out in the first round. In ’10, they got swept by Phoenix in the conference semis. Last year, they exited in the first round again.
It took five years — and the Spurs are smart! They’re shrewd judges of talent. They’re considered one of the more capable organizations in sports. Imagine how long it might take if you weren’t both adroit and lucky.
The Lakers will be squeezed by payroll restrictions under the new collective bargaining agreement, and by the harsh reality that what they have to offer other teams — the only two real pieces of trade bait are Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum — may not bring the kind of return necessary to begin a rebuilding process in earnest.
Then there is the competition. The Spurs might have a couple of more years of superior basketball left. The young Thunder could have five to 10 years of dominance in its future. If Mark Cuban can snag Deron Williams or Dwight Howard or both, the Mavs will again be a factor. The Clippers and Grizzlies are promising assemblages on the rise.
Where do Kobe and the Lakers fit in to this championship puzzle? They don’t.
Naturally, there is another option. Kobe and the Lakers could part company. Kobe could hitch a ride on another roundball bandwagon, like Karl Malone and Gary Payton tried to do when they joined the Lakers for the 2003-04 season. Of course, neither got what he desperately wanted. The Big Three of the Miami Heat are also finding out that it isn’t that easy. There are no guarantees.
Also, Kobe Bryant appears to relish his status as a one-team guy, especially since that team is one of the more illustrious in sports. The owner’s son, Jim Buss, who is running the basketball operation, said in a radio interview a few weeks ago that there’s no chance Kobe will be traded. And although Kobe blew up in May of 2007 and loudly declared he wanted out, since then he seems to have settled in as a Lakers lifer.
That means Kobe will stay, and he’ll have to hope that Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak can work some miracles and accelerate the rebuilding process. But even if they do an amazing job, it’ll probably still take at least a few years before the Lakers are near the same level in the West with some of the younger and rapidly ascending competitors.
The Lakers and Kobe will have to face facts. They’ve had an incredible run. Since 2000, they’ve added five championship banners to their rafters and pulled to within one title of the hated Boston Celtics, 17-16. That’s a record that most NBA owners and executives would sell their souls for.
And there likely will be more championships for the Lakers. It just won’t happen with Kobe Bryant on the roster. When they stage their next parade, he won’t be riding on a float.
As for Kobe, he won’t catch Jordan, the player to whom he is most often compared. But he will have come as close as any superstar of his era. He certainly will have come closer than LeBron, the man who declared his championship intentions when he arrived in Miami by saying, “Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven …”
Kobe actually won five. The fact that he’ll stop at five should be a source of pride, not frustration. It’ll have to be, because he won’t get to six.