For a player defined by an insatiable appetite for superiority, Kobe Bryant in particular was dealt a major blow by the departure of Dwight Howard. Not because of the who leaving his Los Angeles Lakers but the what Howard takes with him: perhaps Bryant’s last best chance at another NBA championship. Though already 34 years and 316 days old and only three months into his recovery from a torn left Achilles, Bryant told the Lakers’ team Web site last week that he intends to play, at a high level, for at least three more years in the hopes of pushing "the rings count out a little further," and that prospect obviously dwindles in the wake of Howard’s decision to sign a free-agent contract with the Houston Rockets. Which is why, despite the notorious mismatch in personality and outlook with his now former superstar running mate, Bryant plunked himself down in Beverly Hills last week with the rest of the Lakers strike force to try and coax him into staying put. Even amidst all the tumult of last season, a zened-out Bryant would preach patience and staying the course, because doing so represented the only route to more winning, and thus aid his legacy-defining ring quest. But while the literal wins are sure to decline without Howard, at least in the immediate, Bryant once again comes away from a significant Lakers free-agency scare a winner. Because like in 2004, when he was the one threatening to walk, the outcome once again leaves the Lakers constructed very much in his image. When Bryant re-upped in Los Angeles nine years ago, in the wake of the departures of Phil Jackson and his first dominant center with an extreme case of the gigg-lees, the Lakers effectively traded in a team built for contention for one that prioritized Bryant. With Lamar Odom and Caron Butler next to him, Bryant’s usage rate and scoring average rose slightly from the previous season, and then, with Jackson back in the fold the following year, soared to what are still career-highs. The Lakers accumulated just four playoff wins in the three seasons after he signed his new contract, which then led to roundabout trade demands spurred by his own impatience with the franchise, but he got what he wanted, most notably out from under the "sidekick" label. An older, wiser and less guarded Bryant appears more in tune with the big picture these days. Despite how sharp and tone deaf the message he reportedly dished out to Dwight in his sitdown last week was, the words of his that surfaced from those closed-door meetings read more as an attempt to inspire than scare away. Bryant has sentimentalized his position in the Lakers’ lore of late, particularly after the death of owner Jerry Buss, who twice talked him off of the ledge when he was thinking hard about leaving the franchise, and his pitch appears driven as much by "Been there, bro" wisdom as it does personal gain. Howard, of course, chose a better chance at future titles over being a part of a team history filled with past titles, and as a result, Bryant’s fast-closing window for that coveted sixth ring only grows smaller. But what he got from Howard, who was quickly placed in the villain role by Lakers sympathizers (if he wasn't there already), is the kind of consolation Bryant in particular should appreciate: the chance to wear the white hat and save the day.