Jim Buss open to the idea of Kobe Bryant playing beyond this season

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Around the NBA, and certainly within the Lakers organization, the assumption is that this season will be Kobe Bryant’s last. He’s 37, going into year 20, the final season of a giant contract, and he’s had his last three seasons cut short due to major injuries. He hasn’t come out and said that he’s done after this year, but he’s hinted at it, and Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has said the Lakers are approaching the season as if this will be their last with the future Hall of Famer.

Not so fast, says Lakers part-owner and executive vice president Jim Buss. In a new interview with the Los Angeles Times‘ Eric Pincus, Buss says he’s very much open to the idea of Bryant sticking around beyond this year, if that’s what he wants to do:

On Thursday Jim Buss, part-owner and executive vice president of basketball operations, spoke to The Times about the upcoming season, the team’s draft picks, his rebuilding plan — and what could be the final season of Bryant’s career.

“We’re going to approach it like it is, but that doesn’t mean it is,” Buss said of Bryant. “I’m not going to sit there and say, ‘This is it, Kobe, you’re done,’ because it’s not my decision, it’s his decision.”

Buss has received plenty of criticism for over-investing in the aging star, who just turned 37 as he heads into his 20th season.

“The man has done so much for the Lakers and the fans of the Laker nation, he deserves the money,” Buss said. “I don’t understand anybody trying to break down what I did for him. Let’s break down what he did for us, then say, what is he worth? To me, he’s worth that.”

So is this Bryant’s final year with the team? “My arms are like this,” Buss said, holding his arms wide open, about Bryant’s future.

“He just has to know, at that age, and that many miles on you, what is your role? We’ll explain the role, and if he still wants to do that and that’s how he wants to go out, that’s fine with me.”

Bryant has said he doesn’t want a Derek Jeter-esque farewell tour, and this talk is certainly leaving the door open for him to play in the future if he wants. Still, for Bryant to play for the Lakers beyond this year, a few things would have to happen. He’d have to be willing to take less money, which he’s been vocally against doing in the past. No matter what he’s done for the team over the last 20 years, they’re starting to get serious about a rebuild, and giving him another contract worth $20-plus million per season would defeat the purpose, even with the salary cap exploding.

He’d also have to agree to either come off the bench or accept a limited role. The Lakers drafted D’Angelo Russell with the No. 2 overall pick in June, with the idea being that he’s Kobe’s eventual replacement as the Lakers’ primary scorer. He won’t be able to assume that role or develop the way they want him to if Bryant is still taking 20 shots a game like he did last season.

Most crucially, Bryant will have to finish the season healthy, something he hasn’t done in three years. He had surgery on a torn Achilles in 2013, then re-injured the same leg in 2014, and had surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff last season. At his age, with three serious injuries in three years, the idea of him playing another season is absurd if he doesn’t stay on the floor for this one.

So, yes, there’s still a possibility that Bryant will play beyond this year. That possibility will be there until he officially announces that he’s hanging it up. But the smart money is still on this being his final year, whether it’s his choice or not.