All eyes on No. 24
Many wonder if this will be the Laker superstar's final curtain call
It's the 20th season for No. 24.
Few expect him to change the way he plays just because the Los Angeles Lakers' next chapter on the court has been described as in transition.
When the Lakers open their new NBA season at home to the Minnesota Timberwolves tomorrow morning (Singapore time), Kobe Bryant will still take the big shots and he will still fire contested jumpers lesser players wouldn't dare attempt.
But that's okay.
"It's even better when Kobe's on the court," guard Julius Randle said.
"We're all young, just trying to learn the game of basketball, get better and build. When Kobe's on the court, he's going to add that extra dimension that we don't have."
After a glittering career spanning three decades, the final curtain is slowly coming down on Bryant - but few are expecting a Hollywood ending for the Lakers superstar.
Bryant heads into the final 12 months of a lucrative two-year contract against the backdrop of a familiar guessing game as to whether this will be his last season as an NBA player.
The 37-year-old five-time NBA champion, who has suffered a series of debilitating injuries in recent seasons that have curtailed the autumn of his career, wearily fields questions about his future.
Some experts, notably former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, have predicted that Bryant will find it impossible to walk away from the game and will seek a final contract at another franchise if he does not extend with the Lakers.
Bryant, who has spent his entire career with the Lakers, said, however, that he has not made any decision about a retirement date.
Yet the prospect of the upcoming season providing him with the opportunity of riding into the sunset after another glorious chapter to his Lakers career are slim to non-existent.
Last season, the Lakers had the second worst record of any side in the extraordinarily strong Western Conference, winning only 21 games and losing 61.
It was the second season in a row that the Lakers had failed to reach the play-offs, and a third failure to reach the post-season seems the likeliest outcome of this campaign.
There are also serious question marks about Bryant's ability to stay the course.
In each of the three previous years, he has suffered serious injuries that forced him to end his season prematurely.
TV analyst and former NBA star Charles Barkley says the Lakers were the fifth-best team in Los Angeles, even behind the WNBA's Sparks.
That would have hurt the fierce pride of Bryant, who has frozen out the media over the last couple of weeks.
He increasingly sees his role as a mentor to the next generation of Lakers, including the likes of Randle, Jordan Clarkson and D'Angelo Russell, the talented 19-year-old rookie who was just seven months old when Bryant arrived for his first Lakers training camp way back in 1996.
Despite all of the uncertainty facing him and the team, he's embracing it as best he can.
"I just let (the concerns) go after awhile, man," Bryant said. "You have to ask yourself, did you do everything you possibly could to prepare for the season? And I have.
"Whatever happens is really beyond your control." - Wire Services.
I hope it’s his last year. There’s a reason he keeps getting hurt. His body can’t take the NBA pounding any more. I just want to remember the great Kobe Bryant.
— NBA great Charles Barkley on Kobe Bryant
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