Kobe Bryant is still an All-NBA type player, but the whispers of him calling it quits when his contract runs out in two seasons are already in the air. That’s what you get when he keeps referring to the Los Angeles Lakers as his team, but also keeps mentioning Dwight Howard as the next one to take over.

Bryant doesn’t want to win as an aging role player, who loses his place on a team he has basically rules, with a changing helping staff around him, for nearly a decade, since the departure of Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat. Bryant wants to win a sixth and seventh NBA ring while he’s still one of the best scorers in the NBA, still one of the best players in the NBA, and still one of the biggest names in the game.

It’s not about health, or not mostly about health. It’s about hunger, and even the most competitive man in basketball (a superlative you can throw at quite a few people) runs out of it sometimes. Entering his 17th NBA Season, making $24-25 million a season might not be enough to motivate him once it runs out, if the Lakers at all will be willing to offer that kind of money. Their payroll problems are a different subject, somewhat of a future. This is about the now, and what’s left of it.

Three more years seems like a really long time to continue to stay at a high, high level of training and preparation and health. That’s a lot of years. For a guard? That’s a lot of years.

We’ve been hearing this about Kobe, not from him, for quite a few years now. After two grueling seasons (2007-2009) which included two NBA Finals and an Olympic tournament in between, Bryant had his first season with a missed game in 2009-2010. He was still scoring 27 points a night, still playing nearly 39, but something felt like a decline. The next season saw a significant drop in minutes and some knee problems.

Bryant went to Germany and went through a knee procedure that pushed him back to 39 minutes a night and 27.9 points per game. Was he better than before? Probably not, but at 33-34, with a decline hard to see for the untrained eye, at least when you’re looking at his numbers, it gets impossible to predict when Bryant might grow tired of all of this.

It factors two things – his chances of winning the NBA title and (not or) the ability to stay a very dominant player while playing for a contending team. No drop in his minutes or change in his role. Still the number one shooting option, still the top scorer. He won’t have it any other way.

Right after the series against Oklahoma, I just had a lot of belief in our organization. I knew how much the Buss family, Jeanie and so forth, wanted to turn it around. I had a lot of faith in the organization. I’ve seen them do it. They rebuilt first by picking up Shaq … then that era was over and they rebuilt again. And now they’ve rebuilt again. I’ve seen them do it before.

Adding Steve Nash and Dwight Howard changed everything about the Lakers intentions. From a team that’s reached some sort of ceiling  a conference semifinal according to the last two seasons as the core of the two recent NBA championships keeps drifting apart, their back to being the focal point of the NBA. More star power, and with it, more expectations. Not just from within, which is the case on the other coast with the Boston Celtics, but from everyone else, who don’t believe in the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat.

Someone once said that the moment you start speaking about retirement  it means you’ve already made the decision in your head and you’re practically retired. Maybe we’ll see it come to effect once the season begins. For now, it’s all about hunger, passion, and the desire for another NBA title with the Lakers. Passing to torch to Dwight Howard, patient or impatient as he may be, will have to wait.

Images: Source