Kobe Bryant: Will He Stay Or Will He Go?

With the return of the NBA season comes unwavering coverage of one of its greatest players of all time, Kobe Bryant.

An unquestioned legend, Bryant is a rarity in today’s NBA as he’s played his entire career for the same team. But will he retire with that team?

There hasn’t been a shortage of attention paid to what Bryant, who’s entering the final year of his contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, will do after this season, which we saw last week when New York Knicks President and Bryant’s former coach Phil Jackson implied that the star shooting guard would suit up elsewhere after this year.

“I don’t think it’s his last year. Sounds like it may be his last year as a Laker, but I think that’s kind of what came out of there,” the Zen-master said in response to a question about whether he’d pursue Bryant in free agency next summer.

Bryant was prompted about Jackson’s comments on Tuesday, and he told Yahoo Sports “I’m a Laker, man. I’m a Laker for better or worse.” Not exactly the most affirmative way to deny that he could wind up elsewhere (he did also add a “dude, I bleed purple and gold”), but this was Bryant’s way of shooting down his former coach, who he won five NBA championships with.

This has brought up a whole discussion on whether or not Bryant will end his career in Hollywood, which I don’t think anyone could come up with a definitive answer for. However, I’m going to offer scenarios for both options.

I’ll start by saying that I’m leaning 75-25 that he DOES NOT retire a Laker. Knowing all that we know about Mamba, he’s as competitive as any player we’ve seen enter the league since Michael Jordan. Now factor in what we know about the Lakers and they’re at best two years or so from possibly competing for a playoff spot, if not further away.

Portland Trailblazer’s GM Neil Olshey made a great point on Grantland’s Zach Lowe’s podcast, The Lowe Post, about rebuilding his depleted roster with players who are on the same timeline as star Damian Lillard. Not to put myself in the same breath as those two great basketball minds, but I discussed the idea when previewing the Knicks recently, how Carmelo Anthony doesn’t exactly fit in because there aren’t many good players on the team who are ready to win now, which is undisputedly where Anthony is at in his career.

You look at the Lakers and their greatest assets besides Bryant are rookie D’Angelo Russell, and second year player – who’s practically a rookie again as he suffered a season ending foot injury in the first game of the season – Julius Randle. Considering it took a team with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden a couple of seasons to really gel and get acclimated to the NBA, I don’t think the Lakers have a shot at being relevant until the 2017-18 season at best unless they miraculously sign two max players to pair with Bryant in the 2016 offseason.

You go from there and wonder: is Bryant at a place in his career where he wants to be a mentor and care more about helping this organization grow than chasing championship number six? Let’s rewind to last December, where he was visibly upset with the lack of talent and readiness surrounding him. I’m not buying that version of Kobe for a second.

I think the other major factor in Bryant not retiring is how much he feels he has left in the tank. After missing 123 games over the last two seasons, that’s 75 percent of games over that span for those keeping score at home, we all know that Bryant wants to go out on a high note. Considering the Lakers are probably going to stink this season, and taking into account that Bryant’s been physically falling apart these last few years, I could totally see him trying to extend his career by playing somewhere he feels he has more support around him.

I read a report today that Bryant has consulted with Jordan and baseball great Derek Jeter about when/how to call it quits, but I think he has too much pride to finish his career with three losing seasons, with at least two of them being completely hampered by injuries.

This is also a situation where logic simply cannot be applied, as your realistic expectations (unless you’re a blind faith Lakers/Kobe fan) and Bryant’s expectations are impossible to align.

If Bryant isn’t going to end his playing days until he’s able to remain healthy for close to a full season, at around 35 minutes per game, he may play until the day he dies. Literally. Which is funny, because two seasons ago when he signed his 2-year, $50M extension we all thought that the 2015-16 season would be the last time we’d see the current third leading scorer in NBA history.

I think the only way that we see Bryant retire with the Lakers is if he does in fact decide that this will be his last season. Not that Mitch Kupchak and the Buss family would be prudent enough to not pay an arm and a leg to keep a player who’s become a complete liability on the defensive end, but if Bryant’s going to stick around the league it’s going to be to prove a point, and I don’t think there’s anything he can prove with a team constructed the way the Lakers currently are.

I don’t think Bryant could ever be the Paul Pierce type, where he looks for the right situation for him to only do what he excels at, regardless of where that situation might be. I think he’s stubborn enough to think he can be the missing piece for a team in the hunt to contend.

I don’t know that any legitimately good teams would chase him in free agency next summer, but if he does make himself available someone better than the Lakers will certainly bite.

The question is “is that what Bryant will want?” Unfortunately I don’t think anyone, even Bryant himself, knows the answer to that question.

Maybe Jackson does.

About Jared Mintz

Jared has worked in ESPN's Production Research and Stats and Analysis Departments, and has contributed to websites such as IamaGM, SBNation, FanSided, and Bro Jackson. He's a Knicks fan, so he's been forced to watch the NBA objectively for the last 15 (going on infinity) years. Follow him on Twitter at @JMintzHoops