Nobody is anxiously waiting with baited Internet for an update on his upcoming plans for next season and beyond. The NBA isn't kneeling at his sneakers, nor is he holding half of the league hostage this summer, and to be honest, there just isn't much curiosity about his odds of winning another championship.
Kobe Bryant, once the biggest name in basketball, now finds himself unable to move mountains or any other impenetrable barrier sitting between him and the chance to go out in style.
As LeBron James is busy flexing his considerable muscle while remaining silent on his free agency plans at least for another day, we do know this much about the current King: He doesn't want to Be Like Kobe when the next contract he signs comes to an end.
By taking his time and weighing a ton of factors and then taking even more time, LeBron knows how this, ahem, decision can have serious implications to the legacy he cares so deeply about. He wants to spend the next few years in the right place and at the right time, and if that happens to be Cleveland, the city that went over the top in its hatred for him in 2010, so be it. LeBron will make that deal with the devil because he'd rather shake hands again with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert than shake hands again with a player who just whipped him in the NBA Finals, as Tim Duncan did last month.
What LeBron wants to do in Miami or Cleveland -- and he's only giving himself those two options -- is collect championships until he no longer has the body or the desire anymore. He has a pair of rings and wants to position himself to add three to that total, which would match Kobe, or go one better and match Michael Jordan. It would be a final confirmation for his rank among the all-time greats, and that won't happen if he wakes up one day and looks in the mirror and sees Kobe staring back at him.
LeBron likes Kobe, respects Kobe, probably even roots for Kobe on a certain level. But he doesn't want to be in Kobe's shoes when he reaches the twilight. That's where LeBron draws the line.
Right now, Kobe is trapped in a twilight zone, unable to free himself or save the Lakers from a potentially murky upcoming season. It's uncomfortable and even tough to watch. Both the player and the team need the kind of help that they might not get. The Lakers have money to spend but no great free agent jumping at the chance to take it. Carmelo Anthony, the most logical candidate, is still torn between being Kobe's teammate and being Amare Stoudemire's teammate. Unlike his father, Jim Buss doesn't cut an inspiring figure as the owner poised to lead the Lakers out of their current fog. And if the Lakers fail to miss the playoffs again, they don't have a No. 1 pick next summer and could turn desperate in 2015-16, which could be Kobe's farewell.
"I've never had patience," said Kobe, refusing to buy into the idea of the Lakers embracing a rebuilding plan while he's in uniform. "And I'm not going to start now."
Well, he might not have a choice. Besides, there's a touch of resignation in his manner. He hasn't gone off in a fit of anger, as he did several years ago, post-Shaq and pre-Pau Gasol, when the Lakers were slow to find help. He isn't pleading with LeBron to consider signing with the Lakers. He did speak with Carmelo but by all indications it was one of those "I need you and would love to have you, but do what's best for you and your family" recruiting pitches. The Lakers officially don't have a coach in place (it'll be Byron Scott, though), only have four players under contract and are coming off a 27-win season and based on the lack of an outcry from their franchise player, Kobe is essentially shrugging.
Of course, what other options does he have, really?
"We have a Plan B," Kobe said Wednesday, without tipping his hand. "We have several options, depending on the timing of this (free agency) process. Plan B is a solid plan. You just have to play the waiting game a little bit and see what things shake out."
The Lakers basically pacified him with a two-year, $48 million contract that in hindsight seems silly for a player coming off Achilles surgery and was never in danger of jumping ship as a free agent this summer. Besides, Kobe is an old 35, maybe too old to fight internal battles anymore. As the sun begins to set on a brilliant career, he appears ready to save whatever energy he has left for a comeback season and then a final curtain call.
"I feel great," he said. "Ready."
The same can't be said of the Lakers at the moment. Unless the Lakers pull a surprise this summer and reload quickly, the only realistic hope for Kobe to win another title must wait until next summer when Kevin Love hits free agency, but even then, will that be enough to write a storybook ending, especially in the tough West?
There were circumstances beyond his control that put Kobe in this situation. Steve Nash got old in a hurry, and brittle, too. Dwight Howard bailed. Gasol pulled up lame and is suddenly no longer an All-Star big man as he enters his 14th season. Plus, no reinforcements were found in a jiffy, something the Lakers always managed to do under Jerry Buss. Finally, Kobe developed leg issues. It was the perfect storm and it cost Kobe two precious years, which is tough to sacrifice when you've already played 17.
Therefore, no matter what he decides, LeBron can't guard against fate. A major injury, a faulty system, teammates who don't become stars or develop killer instincts, anything can disrupt well-laid plans and keep him from his next championship. But all of that aside, LeBron wants to give himself the best chance. He wants to avoid an extended and empty title stretch, if possible. He wants a solid No. 2 guy, a strong No. 3 guy. He wants to know that, when he finds the open man, that player will hit the shot. He wants a supporting cast with a healthy and strong shelf life, one that won't expire on him after one or two years.
Therefore, it's up to Heat president Pat Riley to pull off the sales pitch of the decade -- and maybe he did just that Wednesday in Las Vegas in his face-to-face with LeBron. Or LeBron needs to feel very confident that youth will be served quickly in Cleveland, where the Cavs are flaunting a promising roster of players who haven't won a thing in their short NBA lives.
Which team will give LeBron the edge he'll need to chase legends?
That's the fork on the road staring at him, which is a lot better than seeing a 35-year-old Kobe in the mirror. LeBron is in a big hurry to catch Kobe in championships, but in no big rush to match Kobe's twilight. As we wait for an answer from LeBron, we know this much: He'll play for a title next season, regardless of what uniform he wears.
Meanwhile, Kobe will play for pride, along with a heavy paycheck for his problems.