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NBA Sunday: The Defiant Kobe Bryant

Clearly, with a lot left in the tank, Kobe Bryant doesn’t look like a player headed toward retirement.

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In 1996, when Kobe Bryant began his career backing up Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel in Los Angeles, he let Del Harris and Jerry West know that he believed he was starting shooting guard material.

Years later, when Phil Jackson introduced him to Michael Jordan in 1999, the first thing Bryant told Jordan was that he “would kick [Jordan’s] ass, one-on-one.”

Bryant refused to play Robin to the Batman of Shaquille O’Neal, refused to accept losing in the years following his departure and has refused to allow father time to determine when his days as a high-level, impact player in this league are over.

From day one, Bryant has been a rebel.

And today, Bryant is defiant.

He has defied father time and continues on as one of the more inspiring players this league has ever seen. Certainly not because he is the consensus greatest player ever, but more so because he has been in the conversation for so long.

Collectively, as a whole, we often discount the role that the ability to take care of one’s self and one’s body plays in the building of one’s legacy.

Anfernee Hardaway, Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill, Greg Oden—all players who were thought to have the makings of trans-generational players.

At one time we feared that Stephen Curry would not be able to fulfill that potential and today, we fear that Derrick Rose may be unable to.

At one time, we had those same fears about Bryant. But ever the fighter, the defiant Bryant has persevered.

Above all else, his rebellious spirit is his greatest gift.

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Inevitably, invariably and predictably, we take things things for granted.

What once impressed us and left us in awe on a nightly basis, we eventually learn to expect. We cease to appreciate it and then, all together, go about our business, casually, as if it doesn’t exist.

Bryant is no exception.

As his Los Angeles Lakers have devolved into the epitome of appalling, Bryant, now without a single player from his 2010 team that he rode to a fifth championship ring, is the last man standing.

That he does so, and that he enters play on December 7 as the NBA’s leading scorer at 25.8 points per game, is amazing. It is especially amazing considering that over the course of the past 18 months, Bryant has had trouble with his left leg, both rupturing his achilles tendon and breaking a bone in his knee.

Despite it all, even as Bryant continues on toward his 37th birthday, he is as competitive as ever. He is noticeably slower these days and he is shooting a career-worst 39.1 percent from the field, but he works tirelessly and diligently. He does so not because he expects the 2014-15 Lakers to make the playoffs or contend for a championship.

No, instead, he does so because he fully expects the team’s leadership to find a way to rebuild, around him, yet again.

Deep down inside, Bryant wants to be around to turn this thing around, sentiments which have recently been discussed by his head coach.

And if his still-productive play is any indication of what is to come, and if his past is indicative of what his future may hold, we may not have seen Bryant hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy for the final time. Rest assured, Bryant is hellbent on winning a sixth championship, and he is hellbent on doing it as a Laker.

Bringing this team back to contention may seem an impossible endeavor, but it becomes all the more possible if Bryant can continue to both defy father time and return to productive play after injuries which may have stopped lesser men—something at which he has excelled to this point.

Defiance at its finest, I’d say.

Traditionally, perimeter players in the NBA begin slowing down noticeably once they have reached the 1,000 game mark. Bryant’s regular season odometer is at 1,265 games and counting. That number doesn’t include the additional 220 playoff games that he’s played en route to his seven appearances in the NBA Finals, nor does it include the summer basketball he has played in 2007, 2008 and 2012 where he competed in the FIBA Americas and Olympic tournaments in Las Vegas, Beijing and London, respectively.

Since being named an All-Star for the first time in 1998, Bryant has made each All-Star team since, totaling 16 appearances in all. He trails only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 19 appearances in that regard.

And no, he may not be the greatest NBA player ever, but if there is one thing he can arguably lay a claim to, is being one of the most consistent and steady forces the league has ever seen. Over the course of the past 16 years, Bryant has gone from being compared to the likes of Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller to Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady to LeBron James and James Harden.

Even as he approaches 40 years old, Bryant’s challenge is to continue to be a peer to the league’s younger generation of stars.

And yes, to defeat them, as well. Those challenges are what has been driving Bryant more than anything else and those challenges are what drove the defiant Bryant through his Achilles tendon rehabilitation.

He is not yet ready to ride off into the sunset.

The more mature, humble and mild-mannered Bryant—a shell of the spoiled and entitled child that once demanded a trade from the Lakers—is out to prove himself.

Bryant wants to prove himself to the Lakers organization, its fans and the league.

And yes, make no mistake about it, Bryant wants to prove to his future would-be teammates that he is still a championship player, capable of helping lead yet another parade through downtown Los Angeles.

So for now, he quietly and patiently goes along and does his part. Unnoticed, Bryant still wakes up freakishly early, even on long road trips, carefully monitoring his diet and being meticulous about his body preparation.

He continues on, defiantly, motivated, quietly, perhaps counting down the days until July 1, 2015.

——

Eerily similar to Carmelo Anthony and his New York Knicks, Bryant finds himself with a talent deficit in Los Angeles.

While one could argue that it is too early to give up on a season after just 20 games, it is also impossible to argue that 20 games is not a big enough sample size to know what a team’s ceiling is.

For the Lakers, this season, it’s low.

The team is on pace to finish the season 21-61, a full six games worse than the 27-55 record the team compiled last season, but it is the light at the end of the tunnel that will keep Bryant going, though right now, it’s merely a flicker.

Still, there may be reason for optimism.

With the sidelined Julius Randle, Nick Young and the lottery pick that the Lakers will likely reap this May as long as it is in the top five, there are at least a few pieces that general manager Mitch Kupchak could finagle. More importantly, though, are the team’s upcoming salary commitments.

With just $35 million on the ledger for the 2015-16 season, the Lakers will have ample cap space to attempt to add pieces to their core via free agency. The 2015 crop may include the likes of Paul Millsap, Rajon Rondo, Al Jefferson, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Love, Arron Afflalo, Greg Monroe, Marc Gasol, Luol Deng, Omer Asik, Reggie Jackson and Goran Dragic—to name a few.

In 2016, some of the notable names that may be available include Al Horford, Andre Drummond, Brandon Jennings, Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan, Mike Conley, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal.

Presently, the Lakers have just $5.4 million committed for the 2016-17 season. Between now and July 1, 2016, moves will be made and money added to the ledger, certainly. But the overall lack of long money contracts gives the Lakers a blank slate upon which they can build their future with. If Bryant likes what transpires between now and then, and if he can continue to play at a very high level, the idea of his re-signing with the club once his current two-year, $48.5 million extension expires is not merely as far-fetched as it once seemed.

And yes, it certainly would become all the more probable if the Lakers were able to acquire Rajon Rondo—a player Bryant was once quoted as calling “one of my favorites.”

——

Having met in two NBA Finals in 2008 and 2010, Rondo and Bryant have shared a mutual respect and a quiet friendship for the past few years. As Rondo finds himself in the midst of a rebuilding project in Boston, he has emerged as the most discussed All-Star caliber player that could potentially be on the move.

In all likelihood, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge would trade Rondo before February’s trade deadline unless he received assurances from Rondo’s representatives that he would re-sign with the club. For Ainge, the simple fact is this: with his team in an all-out rebuild, he simply cannot afford to allow Rondo to leave his team via free agency and receive nothing in return. The mere prospect of that is frightening.

Although he is yet to return to 100 percent after tearing his ACL in January 2013, Rondo has shown some of the flashes that have made him emerge as one of the NBA’s top floor generals over the past few years.

Entering play on December 7, Rondo, despite a dearth of talent surrounding him in Boston, leads the league with 11.3 assists per game. He has a sizable lead over second-placed Ty Lawson, who averages 10.3 assists per game.

A union makes sense on many levels, and their recent breakfast meeting has only put fuel on the fire.

Moving forward, if Bryant is to somehow extend his career and his high-level play—a feat that seems daunting—it will begin and end with the Lakers acquiring a player of Rondo’s caliber. At this point, what Bryant needs more than anything else is what Steve Nash was supposed to provide: a floor general who can simultaneously take Bryant off of the ball while creating easier looks for both him and his other teammates.

As it stands, the Lakers are light years away from competing against the teams in their own division, much less the rest of the NBA’s Western Conference. The Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers each have cores that are younger, more experienced and much more talented than the collective cast that the Lakers are trotting out.

However, with the flexibility that the Lakers have maintained, the player and draft pick assets they have amassed and the ever-productive Bryant still playing at a high level, it is not far-fetched to believe that the team may find itself much more competitive, and in very short order.

And if that does happen, the hunger for the sixth, the will to compete and the ability to continue on at a high-level—it may be too much for Bryant to walk away from.

——

There is no question that Bryant is in the twilight of his career. There are doubts as to whether he will ever play in the playoffs again, much less help the Lakers win another championship. But if there is one thing that the world needs to know and understand about Bryant is that every fiber in his being has long been dedicated to defiance.

So as the season progresses and the Lakers and Bryant attempt to rebuild, don’t be surprised if the rebellious and defiant Bryant begins to wonder whether he has more left in the tank than he once thought.

And certainly, don’t be surprised if his Lakers soon find themselves making headlines with a flashy acquisition or two and soon find themselves mentioned among the conference’s contenders.

And don’t be surprised if that happens with Bryant still fully in the picture, even at 37 years old.

Yes, that would be defiant, but it also wouldn’t be anything new.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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