Los Angeles Lakers fans might not want to hear this, but the retirement of Kobe Bryant from basketball is probably going to be the best thing that happened to the franchise since they traded Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for Bryant two decades ago. While Bryant goes down as one of the best Lakers of all time and has delivered them five more championship banners and a few more trips to the Finals, his time is at an end, and he no longer holds the franchise hostage.
The first fifteen years or so of Kobe Bryant’s career were definitely golden years for the franchise. After the stunning success and multiple trips to the Finals with a few championships along the way in the 80s, thanks to players like Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the 1990s were not so kind to the Lakers. Bryant changed that, along with Phil Jackson joining as coach after his two three-peats with the Chicago Bulls. Bryant delivered three championships of his own when paired with Shaquille O’Neal, and another two later own when paired with Pau Gasol. At the time of the Shaq/Kobe pairing, there was some debate about which was a more valuable player, but considering that both went on to win more championships individually, this may never be settled.
It has to be noted that Kobe Bryant achieved these championships in very tough years in the Western Conference. While these rings occurred in the “post-Jordan” era, that does not diminish the significance of these championships. If anything, it turned into Kobe’s league for a decade. While getting to the Finals in the West, this was also the same era that saw the San Antonio Spurs winning five rings in six trips while sporting the highest win percentage of any major league franchise of all North American sports. This was also a time that saw future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki lead the Dallas Mavericks to two Finals and one championship, as well as the rise of Oklahoma City as a perennial threat to winning it all before Golden State eclipsed everyone.
For all this success, though, the later years of Kobe’s career were far short of success. He practically missed entire seasons due to injuries, always defiantly coming back and doing what he could to win, but the wins came fewer and fewer every year. The franchise even gambled in some risky trades to try and squeeze out one more campaign from Kobe, including the now regretted Steve Nash trade that backfired. The franchise also continued to make sure that Kobe was either among or the actually highest paid player in the league. Such loyalty to Bryant was well-earned, given what he’s done for the team, but it was not in pace with his actual production on the floor.
The Lakers losses mounted in the injury years did result in some prime draft picks, allowing the team to assemble a young core of potential talent to rebuild around. Whether or not their time on the court with Kobe helped them develop or not will always be open for debate. Bryant set a competitive bar of high expectations that is good for developing players to be exposed to in practices, but his usage rate and a high number of shots taken in actual games took minutes and looks from the future faces of the franchise.
Now that Bryant has retired, the Lakers organization is going to have newfound freedoms to explore. Many free agents, even not the marquis ones, avoided Los Angeles because they did not want to play in Kobe’s shadow, much less with him on the floor. Now, a franchise player can come in and be the star of the team. There is also tremendous salary cap room free, both from Bryant’s retirement, as well as the boost all teams get from the television deal.
The Los Angeles Lakers have cause for optimism in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s retirement. Few individual careers rival his in terms of raw success, with multiple runs to the Finals and five rings coming from them. However, he’s no longer holding the franchise back with his age and injuries, and they have a young core of talent to pair with potentially two max-level contracts in which they could easily return to the contention conversation every season.