51 Questions: Is this Kobe Bryant’s final season?

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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Is this Kobe Bryant’s final season?

Kobe Bryant does not want a Derek Jeter-style farewell tour.

Even if Kobe were sure this coming season — his 20th in the NBA, all with the Los Angeles Lakers — was to be his last, he’d be coy about it just so it didn’t become a thing (although, he can only slow that so much). He doesn’t want opposing teams presenting him with a rocking chair before games.

Still, the question still hangs over the Lakers: Will this be Bryant’s final NBA season?

Nobody knows.

That includes Bryant himself.

If there is one thing Kobe fans — really all hoops fans — should root for it that on April 13, Bryant will be healthy enough to run out of the Staples Center tunnel with his teammates and take part in warmups before the Lakers take on the Jazz in their final game of the season. For the past few years, the end of Kobe’s season has been determined by injury — which each time left Kobe determined to overcome that, outrun Father Time a little longer, and leave the game on his own terms. Another serious injury would pretty much answer the question about his return.

If he gets through the season healthy, then he gets to make his own decision.

He will have options.

• He can decide to walk away. I think this is the most likely outcome. We all know the mythology of Kobe’s competitiveness — much of that myth is true — and it will be a challenge for him to move on from the game. Having been around him, I believe him when he says he doesn’t want to play for any other franchise. I also think Kobe will get to the end of this season and see some hope in the direction the Lakers are headed (with D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle) but realize they are still years away from title contention (and that’s if things go right). There is not a good enough Lakers short term, so he will choose to walk away. He is a man with a business plan, charitable foundations, and a platform for his life after basketball that few players have when it’s over. He can transition.

That said, a lot of people who know Kobe better than I — Phil Jackson, Jerry West, long-time Lakers beat writer (now with Bleacher Report) Kevin Ding, among others — think he will continue to play.

• He can choose to re-sign with the Lakers. If Kobe wants to stay a Laker, the Buss family will welcome him back — he is worth too much to them financially not to. Kobe sells season tickets, he fills the luxury boxes, he draws television ratings (and that massive local cable deal the Lakers have is ratings dependant). But there are questions with this approach. First, would Kobe be willing to take $10 million (give or take) a year, Tim Duncan style deal to give the Lakers’ flexibility to go after big name free agents? Would those free agents still come to L.A. the shadow of Bryant looms over the team? (For a lot of elite players the answer there is no, even though they would never say that publicly.) Finally, will Kobe accept a role that has fewer minutes and more mentoring, as his skills decline with age, and the Lakers try to transition to their next phase?

• He can choose to sign with another NBA team. This one comes up around NBA circles when you discuss Kobe’s future, and there two schools of thought. The more common one is that he joins Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher in New York as a member of the Knicks, playing in the nation’s other major market in a sort of reunion tour. This makes no sense for the Knicks in their effort to rebuild, and I’m not sure you can play Kobe and Carmelo Anthony together for heavy minutes, but relationships play a big part in how decisions are made in the NBA. The other option you hear is he takes a big pay cut to join the Warriors (Jerry West is there), Thunder (with Kevin Durant back), Spurs, or some other contender to chase ring No. 6. I doubt any of this happens because Kobe is too protective of his brand — and part of his brand is being a Laker for life. Plus, can you see Kobe agreeing to be option No. 4 on a team?

• He can choose to play in China for a season. Because of his years of work, taking trips for Nike there every summer — he has his own Chinese-language website and a charitable foundation — Bryant is huge in China. He could go there, play only once or twice a week in games where defense borders on optional (have you ever watched a CBA game?), put up numbers and sell a lot of shoes. It would be good for the Kobe brand. But that would also mean a lot of time away from his family, something that is very important to him.

We don’t know what path Kobe will take — Kobe doesn’t know what path he will take.

All we can hope for is that he is healthy enough to choose his own path.