Kobe Bryant entering twilight zone
Kobe feels he still has elite years to come; so do some observers
He is, in any other world but the one he has owned the past two decades, a young man. Thirty-two years old. Strong. Wealthy. And entering the stage of life where what's behind you finally feels solid and safe.
In any other world but the NBA, Kobe Bryant's life would be about to take off.
But with 15 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers and more than 40,000 minutes already recorded on his odometer, he's instead reached the point in his career where he might begin to drop off.
In perhaps the most telling sign yet of his personal growth and maturity, it is a reality he no longer rages at or denies.
He is older. His game has changed as his body has aged. All those battles have left scars.
"What I think about is shutting up those MF's saying I'm done," he said last week after his season-ending exit interview with general manager Mitch Kupchak and departing coach Phil Jackson.
"Last summer I really didn't do anything because of the surgery [on my knee], so I came in this season already with a weak leg and having to go through a season trying to get it stronger while playing.
"Next season will be different. I'll have this whole offseason to kind of get strong. There's a difference between feeling healthy and feeling as strong as I know I can be. I feel like I could do everything I wanted to do. But there's another level I feel like I can get to."
So instead of resting this summer, he plans to run. To grind as only he can. To push himself harder and farther so that he might squeeze another few years of elite play out of a body that could cruelly betray him at any moment.
In life, there are formulas for prognosticating just how much longer a person might live and actuaries who make a lot of money for being good at that skill.
In the NBA, there is only experience and intuition. A best guess, and sometimes just a hope.
For the Lakers, the stakes could not be higher.
Their championship window likely stays open only as long as Bryant's does. Which makes forecasting the number of elite seasons he has left the most important question facing the franchise over the next few seasons.
Financially, that decision has already been made. Bryant is signed for $83.5 million over the next three seasons.
Spiritually, the decision still looms.
"I know a lot of people who think next year is his last year at this level," said one former NBA head coach, who has competed against Bryant many times but never coached him. "But I think he'll give them at least two more because he's such a prideful man.
"The thing with Kobe is that he can be his own worst enemy because he has so much pride, so much confidence in himself, he may not realize when he's lost too much."
In the sports world, it is a drama that plays out bitterly more often than it ends well.
Grace, for the greats, is rare in the end.
Earlier this week in New York, the last days of 39-year-old Yankees catcher Jorge Posada's great career took an inglorious turn as he asked out of the lineup an hour before a game in which he'd been dropped to ninth in the batting order.
Already this year, Posada had been asked to swallow the lesser role of designated hitter. And already he'd chafed at the organization's treatment of what remained of its championship core: Posada, shortstop Derek Jeter and closer Mariano Rivera.
This final affront, manager Joe Girardi's decision to bat him ninth without so much as a heads-up before the lineup was posted, was too much too bear.
While Bryant and the Lakers seem a long way off from that kind of ending, it is a chilling reminder of how quickly a once-fruitful relationship can rot if it is not managed well.
The challenge for both Bryant and the Lakers is to be as honest as they are vigilant in looking for signs of decline, and then adjusting to them.
"Phil [Jackson] was great at communicating with Kobe in this regard. They always came to a meeting point.
"Whoever the new coach is will have to come to a point where they can sit down and talk about it too, 'What's best for the team and what's best for Kobe.'"
While others outside the organization suspect Bryant will struggle and grow frustrated as he ages and his athleticism dulls, Hamblen said that Bryant's attitude and behavior the past few seasons has made him more optimistic.
"His demise, if we can even say that, will be a lot further down the road than most people think because of how hard he works in the offseason, and how he's already adjusted his game," Hamblen said.
"He's one of those guys that's a real student of the game. He knows the deal and what happens to your body. He's studied how all the great players adjusted their games, and I believe he'll do that, too."
Already, Hamblen said, Bryant has improved his shooting and post-up game to compensate for his diminishing ability to drive to the basket and finish at the rim.
Bryant has averaged just 7.1 free throw attempts per game the last three seasons, well off the 10.2 attempts he averaged in 2005-06 when he led the NBA in scoring, and slightly below his career average of 7.6 free throw attempts a game.
His shooting percentage over the last three years has remained a robust 45.9 percent (above his career 45.4 percent average) despite more of a reliance on jump shots.
By comparison, Michael Jordan --the player Bryant will always be measured against -- got to the line just 4.6 times a game in his final two seasons (2000-01, 2001-02) after averaging 8.2 free throw attempts over his career.
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Although Jordan turned 40 during his final season with the Washington Wizards, those last two seasons were his 14th and 15th overall.
"By the end of his career, Michael had lost that athleticism and he couldn't post guys up like he used to," the former NBA coach said. "Once you lose that athletic skill level, it scares you.
"It scares you and it makes you angry. Kobe's not there yet. At some point he will struggle with that; he'll get frustrated and angry, too.
"But he's not there yet. Next year I think he'll come back with a vengeance and bust some people."
Bryant will be 33 by the beginning of next season. A young man in every other world but the one he has spent a lifetime conquering.
He sits home now, after the Lakers' early exit, watching younger men compete on the stage he owned as recently as last season.
His stage is still set for another few years.
The question is whether he will leave it well one day.
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.