The first in a series on how league insiders view the Lakers' rebuild.
Kobe Bryant runs into the noise, the deafening roars and the thumping music blasting throughout Staples Center.
"And at the other guard, 6-foot-6, in his 21st campaign from Lower Merion High School ..." arena announcer Lawrence Tanter bellows, but he's drowned out by a thunder of cheers.
An injury-free Bryant buries a contested jumper just after tip-off, and as he sprints and cuts, shaking 25-year-olds like he has for decades, it's as if he, at age 38, is not only beating Father Time but turning back the clock.
The game ages into the fourth quarter, the score tight, and, as usual, the ball finds Bryant's hands, just like old times, and he comes through, once again, sending the crowd into a frenzy. It's another game-winner, another highlight for the all-time reel.
Could it get any better?
This is the dream scenario for the final chapter of Kobe Bryant's career, the storybook ending for one of the greatest players of the NBA's glamour franchise. Bryant has only one season remaining on his contract -- his 20th with the Lakers, the most in NBA history for any player with a single franchise. But Bryant hasn't committed to making 2015-16 his farewell tour, leaving the door open for another season thereafter.
Such a turn of events would be a godsend for some Lakers fans, many of whom worship at the altar of Bryant. Numerous people around the NBA, however, say Bryant deciding to play beyond this upcoming season would be the Lakers' worst nightmare.
"They've got to get rid of Kobe," a scout said.
"You let him walk," an agent said.
"Get rid of Kobe by whatever means necessary," an executive said.
Of the 24 league insiders -- team executives, agents, scouts, etc. -- ESPN spoke with for this story, only one said the Lakers should definitely bring Kobe back if he decides to extend his career past his current contract.
Thirteen said the Lakers must move on from Bryant regardless. The rest said Bryant's health this season will dictate how he and the Lakers should approach his future.
If Bryant remains healthy? Then, the insiders said, the Lakers should dream up offers, light on cash and playing time and heavy on mentoring, designed to push Kobe out without looking like it.
However, there was considerable skepticism among those interviewed that the Lakers would cut ties with Bryant after next season or in the years to come for various reasons: financial, fear of backlash from fans, or simply that he holds too much power over the organization.
"They've created a monster there," one executive said, "and it's hard to get out of it until he actually goes away."
"I tried to be as direct as possible and show him in front of the other players how his selfish mistakes were hurting the team. During one film session, I said, 'Now I know why guys don't like playing with you. You've got to play together.' I also indicated to him that if he didn't want to share the ball with his teammates, I would gladly work out a trade for him." -- Phil Jackson in his 2013 book, "Eleven Rings."
Bryant has long carried the reputation as a poor teammate, one bestowed upon him by ex-teammates and coaches, namely Jackson.
But now, with Bryant in the twilight of his career, how he works alongside the young players on the roster might be the most important factor for the team's present and future.
Having largely struck out in free agency, the Lakers are heavily invested in youth. D'Angelo Russell was the No. 2 overall pick this year. Julius Randle was the No. 7 overall pick the year before. Jordan Clarkson, a 2014 second-round pick, was an all-rookie first-team selection last season.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak says developing these young players is one of the team's top priorities. But trial and error is often a key component in a player's growth. For instance, a high turnover rate is largely viewed as a positive indicator for rookie point guards; Russell Westbrook, now a four-time All-Star, led the league in giveaways in his first season.
Will Bryant defer enough and allow Russell to work though his missteps (or, y'know, have fun)? Or will he continue to try to take over games (Exhibit A from the preseason), thus stunting the growth of the Lakers' promising young players, a situation Andrew Bynum decried soon after leaving Los Angeles?
"I don't think it will be any different than it has been in years past," Kupchak said in late September. "[Bryant will] be 100 percent on board with the game plan, and he'll be patient, as patient as he can be.
"But there will be a point where if things aren't going the way that he feels they should be going or the players aren't producing, his instincts will kick in, and I'm sure he'll try to do as much as possible."
"There will be a point where if things aren't going the way that [Kobe Bryant] feels they should be going or the players aren't producing, his instincts will kick in and I'm sure he'll try to do as much as possible."Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak
Many insiders doubt Bryant will take a backseat to anyone, let alone young players.
"That's why I wouldn't want him on the team," one executive said, "because I don't think he'd accept that role."
"When has he ever embraced anything even close to that over the last two-to-three years?" one scout asked. "I don't think you're going to be able to change him to be in a role that he's never been in."
Bryant continued racking up points last season, averaging 22.3 in 35 games, which would have ranked eighth in the NBA. But his inefficient offensive game coupled with abysmal defense meant that Bryant was one of the worst starters in the league. His real plus-minus of minus-2.15 was 301st in the NBA and 55th among shooting guards.
One need only look to last November for evidence. In the Lakers' 10th game of the season, against the Golden State Warriors, Bryant finished with 34 shots in 31 minutes. He scored 44 points, but as Warriors big man Marreese Speights noted after the game, a 21-point Golden State win, Bryant's scoring was "really irrelevant."
The defeat dropped the Lakers to 1-9, their worst 10-game start in franchise history. Bryant's teammates didn't hide their frustration afterward.
"A lot of times we run a set, but Kobe is extremely aggressive," forward Carlos Boozer said. "And then we try to hit the glass, get it off the glass. We've got to find a balance. It can't be lopsided. We've got to find a balance."
Said guard Jeremy Lin: "The game of basketball is ... we've got to do it together. It can't be ... if I go into a game concerned about myself, then in some ways that's detrimental to the team."
Since becoming a full-time starter in his third season, Bryant has averaged under 20 shots just four times, and only twice in the past 15 seasons, one of which came in 2013-14, when injuries limited him to six games.
But change, at this point, might be hard. One agent laughed when asked if he believed Bryant could accept a smaller role.
"It's interesting because the guy Kobe patterns himself after is Michael [Jordan] ... but Michael didn't really go out like he wanted to or as gracefully as he could, going to the Wizards," one executive said. "He kind of battled injuries and had some big moments, but never won again, never reached the same level. I keep thinking Kobe is going to have that similar type of exit whenever he finishes up. It would be ironic if that's the way he ended up just because of the way he idolizes him."
At this point in his career, Bryant's presence on the court hurts the Lakers more than it helps. But off the court, he still has the impact of a superstar.
Team financial records aren't made public, but the Kobe Effect is clear:
• Last season, among self-identifying NBA fans who were asked to name their favorite NBA player, Bryant ranked as the No. 2 most popular sports player behind James, according to an ESPN Sports Poll.
• While the Lakers remained one of the highest-rated teams in the NBA the past two seasons, their games without Bryant have rated about 30-40 percent lower than the 2012-13 season average with Bryant. Of course, that ratings drop isn't solely because of Bryant's absence. A team's record impacts ratings. But because Bryant is the only star on a bad team, he has often been the only reason to tune in.
And from a financial standpoint, ratings matter greatly to the Lakers. In fact, a 2014 ESPN The Magazine story noted that when it comes to the Lakers' 20-year, $3 billion deal with Time Warner Cable, a "well-placed source who has reviewed Lakers team finances [says] the Lakers' annual income from that deal hinges on ratings."
So even with his play negatively affecting the on-court product, would the franchise willingly give up a cash cow still producing for its bottom line?
While the Wizards struggled in Jordan's two seasons in D.C., winning 37 games twice, his comeback was a financial boon for the franchise. They led the league in attendance both seasons and, according to The Washington Post's Michael Leahy, increased home attendance by 32 percent in Jordan's first season, which translated to $18 million more for the club.
"Thanks to Jordan and the newly constituted Wizards, it looked like years of financial malaise had ended, that the franchise would actually be realizing profit for the first time in many years," Leahy wrote in "Nothing Else Matters," which chronicles Jordan's Wizards era. "The Wizards season ticket sales had climbed to more than 14,000 seats, the luxury boxes were being filled, revenue from ad sales in Wizards souvenir programs and from corporate signage around MCI had spiked. Jordan was as reliable as the United States Mint, and as long as he was, nothing would be permitted to impede the money machine."
Bryant's overall value is often cited in response to the widely criticized two-year, $48.5 million contract extension the team gave him in 2013, a deal Lakers president Jeanie Buss has defended by saying Bryant is "worth every penny" despite being injured for much of those two years.
Many league insiders said Bryant knows full well how much money he makes the team, and how much the Lakers and the Busses rely on him for revenue. (And if he didn't, he would only need to look at the Lakers' tickets this season to find out.) That's why many said they don't believe Bryant would take a discount to return.
That belief has roots in two other areas: The Lakers have already established that they'll pay him far above his market rate, and Bryant himself has been a vocal opponent of aging stars taking a "hometown discount," as Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki and San Antonio's Tim Duncan each recently did.
When asked if he believed Bryant would accept a smaller deal to remain with the Lakers, one executive laughed. "His ego wouldn't let him," the executive said. "There's no way."
Another executive suggested that Bryant might take more, especially as the salary cap soars from $70 million this season to an expected $90 million in the 2016-17 season.
"In some ways, the older guys, they've got to be a little bitter that this new money didn't come in earlier when they were at their height [of their game]," the executive said. "He's got to know that, 'Man, if I would've been 25 when this stuff hit, I would've been the highest-paid player ever. I'd be making $40 million a year.' Now he's got to watch these other guys do it, and I don't think he can swallow that with as much pride as he has."
The other major issue is free agency. League insiders said top targets would avoid signing with the Lakers as long as Bryant is on the team, a notion that has become more widely discussed as more and more free agents, such as LaMarcus Aldridge, have turned them down.
"I can't believe players are saying, 'I can't wait to play with Kobe Bryant,'" one executive said. "They want to play with Anthony Davis, they may want to play with Stephen Curry, they may want to play with Kevin Durant, and maybe LeBron can entice people because he's the best player in the world. But Kobe can't bring anybody there."
"Guys know who Kobe is and that he can be an a--h--- ... playing with him, his personality, him being ball-dominant," an agent said. "People are waiting for him to leave."
In late September, Phil Jackson said he doesn't believe Bryant will retire after this season, but that it could be the end of his reign in L.A.
"I don't think it's his last year," Jackson said. "It sounds like it may be his last year as a Laker."
If Bryant were to leave, would another team want him?
Insiders say his options are slim.
One executive mentioned the Knicks. Another brought up Clippers coach Doc Rivers and his willingness to show up his fellow Staples Center residents. Some team might, as one exec put it, "do it to sell a couple more suites."
But by and large, they see a tricky market awaiting Bryant should he decide to look elsewhere.
"The problem that Kobe has that's different from anybody else is that he doesn't really have any allies in the league," an executive said. "He's only known the Lakers, and he destroys everything in his path. I'm not naming names, but some of his former coaches are probably not going to speak fondly of him. [But] you really limit yourself of places that he could possibly go. I don't know of anybody who in their right mind would say getting him in their organization would be a great idea."
So what do the Lakers do?
A separation was the consensus, but the handling of it seemed just as important to some.
"So let's say I walked in there as GM, and one of the first things I did was say, 'Hey, Kobe, you're not coming back.' I think that would probably play extremely poorly in the L.A. media," one executive said. "As a use of your political capital, that's probably not the right thing to do. It's probably better to offer him a contract at, like, say, $5 million with some strings attached -- 'Hey, our expectations for you on this contract is you're going to mentor the young guys, you're going to behave in an excellent way.' ... And just basically put him in a position where he's probably going to say no to you.
"Then you can be like, 'Look, we offered him $5 million a year. This is the type of deal that Nowitzki and Duncan took. We wanted him to be part of the next wave, but we told him that he's got to be a mentor, and he probably won't be a 35-minute-a-night player, and blah, blah, blah, and he told us that doesn't appeal to him,' so at least you can say you tried."
By ultimately making a less-than-appealing offer, the Lakers could force Bryant to test the market elsewhere if he wants to continue his NBA career.
Setting themselves free of Bryant is an inevitable, albeit difficult, step forward on the Lakers' path to becoming contenders again, even if seeing him go might be a harsh reality for the franchise and for Lakers fans who want Kobe Bryant to wear purple and gold forever.