Kobe Bryant, though absent, remains face of the Lakers

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant talks with Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant talks with the media during a news conference. (Nov. 27, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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For a while, it seemed like life without Kobe Bryant wasn't so bad after all.

The Lakers may have hung on for a 99-94 win over the Nets. But when they desperately needed a bucket after letting a 27-point lead disappear, it became evident just how much they miss having Bryant as their go-to guy.

Maybe that's why the Lakers emphatically showed they aren't ready to usher in the post-Kobe era by signing him to a two-year, $48.5 million extension on Monday. The deal keeps Bryant as the highest paid player in the NBA though he's 35-years-old and still weeks away from returning from a torn Achilles tendon.

Bryant, who was at Barclays Center Wednesday night but declined Newsday's interview request, was criticized by some for not taking a larger pay cut in order to give the Lakers added salary cap flexibility. He took to Twitter on Tuesday to justify his salary, which will account for more than a third of the Lakers' projected $62.9 million cap next season.

"I don't read the papers so I have no idea," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said Wednesday when asked if he was surprised by the backlash Bryant's extension caused. "I know in Lakers world we're happy and we'll go forward with it."

In Lakers world, they've had 17 years to reap the benefits of Bryant's value, from his production on the court to his marketability off it. No disrespect to Jodie Meeks, but Jack Nicholson isn't sitting courtside in Los Angeles to see him start at shooting guard.

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Wednesday night, Brooklyn was denied its lone opportunity to see Bryant in person this season, and with his absence, the buzz normally generated when the Lakers come to town was lacking.

In order to maintain his star appeal and production when he returns, Bryant may have to reinvent himself as a player to compensate for the explosiveness he has lost to age and injury.

"He'll probably even become a better shooter," D'Antoni said. "He'll have to rely on that element more maybe instead of getting to the hole all the time . . . He wants to have another ring or two and he'll try to figure out the best way for him to play and he'll be effective for sure."

Whatever Bryant's motivation to return might be -- perhaps that he's only one title and 675 career points away from tying Michael Jordan in each category -- he's out to prove his worth and show that the NBA is still much better with him than without.

Or as Bryant said on Tuesday: "It kind of just adds more fuel to the fire of being able to come out and kind of prove to everybody that [the Lakers] are right and everybody else is wrong."

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