Decade after decade, generation after generation, there have always been certain things Los Angeles Lakers fans could count on. They know their ownership is trying to win, win now and win big. And as 16 championship banners will attest, the franchise knows how to get there, and money will not be an obstacle.
The Lakers have risen and fallen during the Kobe Bryant years, as almost any franchise will do over the course of 17 seasons. But you can judge a franchise by its peaks and valleys. For Los Angeles, that's meant five more titles at the apex, and a floor of a single sub-.500, non-playoff season. In terms of their association with sustained, high-level team success, the only peers Bryant has in contemporary professional sports are Derek Jeter in baseball and perhaps Tom Brady in the NFL.
Now 34, Bryant has spent half of his natural life in a Lakers uniform and 17 years into his career he's carrying as heavy a load as ever, and doing it well. Despite the early struggles of his controversy-plagued team, Bryant leads the NBA with a 29.5 scoring average that only begins to tell his story.
Bryant's PER is the highest it's been in five seasons and is at a level he's reached in just three other seasons. He's putting up a career-best .602 true shooting percentage while using a third of the Lakers' possessions, and he's doing it while playing the most minutes in the league. It's a level of volume and efficiency that few players ever reach, and he's doing it after 17 years of pounding up and down the hardwood.
Current evidence to the contrary, Bryant can't keep going like this forever, not at this level. Oh, he can probably play for a long time to come if he wants to just exist or to chase Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career scoring record, but as he eventually enters his mid-30s, it's impossible to imagine Bryant easing into an elder-statesman, glue-player role like Jason Kidd has filled in recent seasons. And then there is the specter of Michael Jordan in a Wizards uniform to serve as a cautionary tale. No, when Kobe can no longer be Kobe, he'll walk away. He's suggested that will be the case.
The Lakers' story this season really centers around Bryant. One title short of matching Michael Jordan, he's the one with the most at stake if the Lakers' season doesn't turn around.