So many unanswered questions surround Kobe Bryant, and whether he can both return and stay healthy for the 2015-16 campaign after suffering three season-ending injuries in consecutive seasons. But Bryant apparently has answered one other looming question.
It involves his future, and whether the 2015-16 campaign will mark his last season of a 20-year career.
“He’s indicated to me this is it,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said Thursday on on “SiriusXM NBA Radio” with Rick Fox and Jared Greenberg.
Kupchak has strongly suggested this sentiment throughout the 2014-15 season, mindful that Bryant’s contract that will pay him a league-high $25 million next season will mark the final year of his contract. But after tearing the rotator cuff in his right shoulder in late January, Bryant soon admitted the possibility he would not know his future until the end of the 2015-16 campaign. That thought process somewhat differs from last summer. Then, Bryant told some around him that he had no intentions in playing past his current contract, according to a source familiar with the comversation.
“There have been no discussions about anything going forward. I don’t think there will be,” Kupchak said. “A year from now, if there is something different to discuss, we’ll discuss it then.”
Lakers Byron Scott has held out hope that would not be the case.
He argued that Bryant could become enticed to prolong his NBA career depending on a few obvious variables. The Lakers would need to upgrade their roster significantly enough this offseason through both the NBA draft and free agency, starting with the No. 2 pick. Bryant would also have to play at an elite level and stay healthy next season, something Scott believes remains possible with a reduced workload and a stronger supporting cast.
“He is recovering, running and getting movement and strength in the shoulder,” Kupchak said. “We expect a full recovery. But he’s much closer to the end than he is to the beginning.”
That’s why Lakers president Jeanie Buss has spearheaded an effort to honor Bryant with unspecified tributes at home games to commemorate his 20th season with the organization.
“He will be recognized appropriately with great gratitude,” Kupchak said, “when it is time.”
That time could be next season, which explains why Kupchak believes he can offer clarity to both prospects and free agents on how the Lakers will rebuild following Bryant’s eventual retirement.
“It is clear. He is on the last year of his deal. There have been no discussions. And he hasn’t indicated that he wants to continue to play,” Kupchak said of Bryant. “But having said all that, we’re kind of guessing.”
There has also been lots of guessing in recent seasons on why the Lakers failed to attract free agents. After all, the Lakers could not retain Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol in consecutive seasons. The Lakers also could not convince LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony last year to wear a Lakers uniform.
Although Gasol and Bryant hold each other in high affection after winning two NBA championships together, Howard had personality and role conflicts with Bryant. Yet, Kupchak strongly dismissed any notion that Bryant would hurt the Lakers’ free agency efforts.
“If somebody doesn’t want to play with Kobe this year or if he decides to come back another year, first of all, he is so much closer to the end than he is at the beginning. But if there is a player out there like that won’t come here for that reason, then we don’t want him,” Kupchak said. “Every great player is demanding and focused and if you don’t want to play for a guy like him who is driven to do nothing but win championships and work hard, then you shouldn’t be here. You should go someplace else.”
Yet, Kupchak said Bryant has hardly been demanding to him about which players to acquire.
In an appearance Thursday on ESPN’s “On the Herd with Colin Cowherd,” Kupchak described Bryant as “kind of aggressive eight to 10 years ago with an opinion and wanting to be involved.” That also coincided to Bryant demanding a trade in the 2007 offseason because of frustration with both the Lakers’ consecutive first-round exits to Phoenix and doubt about the front office rebuilding into a championship contender quickly enough.
But the Lakers refused to trade Bryant, whom Kupchak said has since avoided trying to exert his influence on how the Lakers assemble their roster.
“He said, ‘You guys know what you’re doing, which was flattering,” Kupchak told Cowherd. “‘I’m just going to do what I’m going to do this offseason. If you need me, I’ll help recruit. If you want my opinion on a player, give me a call.'”
Yet, Kupchak doubts Bryant will have much opinion on the college prospects, noting that his expertise mostly just relies on watching elite programs, such as North Carolina, Duke and Kentucky.
Said Kupchak: “I don’t think he wants to be involved in the draft at all.”