Kobe Bryant has seen the rise and fall of an empire.
His first couple of seasons he came off the bench, learning from Eddie Jones, a fantastic two-way player who made three All-Star teams, three Second-Team All-Defensive Teams and one All-NBA Third Team.
During his first two seasons, Bryant shared the court with Shaquille O’Neal, Nick Van Exel, Elden Campbell and fellow youngster Derek Fisher. Both years, the Los Angeles Lakers were very successful during the regular season, but couldn’t break through come playoff time.
In his third season, which was the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, Bryant started all 50 games, but the Lakers underachieved. Despite flaunting a roster that included O’Neal, Bryant, Jones, Glen Rice, Rick Fox, Dennis Rodman, Derek Harper and Fisher, the Lakers were swept in the second round of the playoffs by the eventual champs, the San Antonio Spurs.
The next year, Bryant and O’Neal took their partnership to a new level, helped by the guidelines of Phil Jackson’s triangle offense and The Zen Master’s off-the-charts ego management skills (which were especially important for Kobe’s temperament). Despite having less depth than the prior year’s squad, Los Angeles topped the Sacramento Kings in the first round, then slid past the Phoenix Suns in the second round, and overcame a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit in game seven of the Western Conference Finals to beat the loaded Portland Trail Blazers.
In the NBA Finals, the Lakers took care of the aging Indiana Pacers in six games. All of a sudden, the Lakers were at the top of the food chain again.
We all know how things shook out after that. The Lakers won two more titles, coasting through the postseason for the second one and barely sliding by the Sacramento Kings for the third one (that 2002 Lakers-Kings series was the de facto championship; I’m from New Jersey and I can tell you right now that the Nets were a borderline top-five team in ‘02).
By the next year, though, the Lakers were imploding. The roster around O’Neal, Bryant, Robert Horry, Rick Fox and Derek Fisher was inept, and even worse, Bryant got sick of O’Neal being the more dominant player (I call it a Guard’s Complex; in terms of sheer basketball talent, guards almost always have more talent than bigs, but bigs just impact the game in a different way, and some guards, like Kobe, just can’t accept that).
The Lakers fell to the Spurs in six games in the second round, and the Spurs went on to claim their second title in five years.
Despite the rift between Shaq and Kobe, the Lakers tried to plug their holes with aging superstars Karl Malone and Gary Payton, giving them the best team on paper in the league. Unfortunately for the Lake Show, chemistry can’t be created with ink. The Lakers went on to fall to the Detroit Pistons in what I call Rasheed Wallace’s Revenge, and then, the team was blown up.
Fast forward to today, as the Lakers sit at the bottom of the Western Conference while an aging Bryant watches from the sidelines. In the beginning of the year, I said that this would be a lost season for the Lakers, and I was spot on (I also had the Milwaukee Bucks contending for a playoff spot for what it’s worth). Just like the 2004-05 season, the year after Shaq was traded, Kobe’s Lakers are falling apart.
The only difference is that this time, they’re broken beyond repair. Oh, and the fact that Kobe is 35 years old, next year will be his 19th season, he’s coming off a serious injury, and he’ll be making $23.5 million next year and $25 million the year after that.
They say that history repeats itself, but for the Lakers and their fans, the sad reality is that this team is headed for the gutter. In the midst of his prime, Bryant couldn’t resurrect the franchise by himself (see 2004-2007 Lakers), and he sure won’t be able to do it as a broken down diva.
Here are the three reasons why the Lakers will not be competitive during Bryant’s final years in the league:
1. Bryant is their only piece moving forward
Steve Nash is falling apart physically, Pau Gasol’s days are numbered in L.A. (although he’d be a great free agent pickup for the Los Angeles Clippers if he wants some revenge) and the rest of the roster is pretty much worthless. Maybe Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson, Jodie Meeks and Jordan Hill are worth keeping around as backups (at the right price), but no one on the current roster is a starter in the league. Yikes. And if anyone feels like Nick Young should be part of the future, they’re due for a psychiatric evaluation (although he’d be a great addition for the Shanghai Sharks).
2. Bryant’s salary keeps the Lakers from adding enough top-tier talent
Let’s pretend that the Lakers are able to grab Carmelo Anthony this summer, although I don’t think that’s going to happen. Even if they do, what then? Then the Lakers will have Bryant making $23.5 million, Melo making around $15 million, post-nerve-damage Steve Nash making $9.7 million and their top draft pick serving as the team’s only other piece. Even if the Lakers are able to grab a guy like Julius Randle, would the foundation of old Kobe, nerve-damaged Nash, Melo and Randle be enough to bring the Lakers to the playoffs in the West? If it is, could they escape the first round? I don’t think so. And that’s if everything goes right.
3. Who would want to join this sinking ship?
Let’s pretend you are Carmelo, and you’re mulling over a max offer from the Lakers. If you sign, you get less money than if you stayed in New York. You have to share the court with Bryant, a fiery competitor who demands excellence from his teammates. Your point guard is either Jordan Farmar or Steve Nash, neither of whom will be able to contain top-flight point guards on defense or create easy shots on offense. You’re stuck in the spotlight of L.A., which you’re used to because you’ve played with the New York Knicks, but instead of being compared to the modest accomplishments of Patrick Ewing, you’re constantly being compared to Bryant and Jerry West. Even if you love the Lakers, you can’t tell me that it’s a smart move to take less money to play with aging Bryant and Nash over taking significantly more money to play with Tyson Chandler and Tim Hardaway Jr.
Right now, the Western Conference is stacked with talent. The Spurs will eventually decline, but they’re still a force to be reckoned with. The Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Clippers and Trail Blazers all have loads of talent in addition to star power. Even the Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies have semi-bright futures (yes, Zach Randolph is aging but the foundation of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley has promise).
The Lakers are stuck in no-man’s land, praying to the basketball gods that the ping-pong balls align properly and free agency is kind to them. Even with the best of luck, Kobe’s championship days with the Lakers are numbered, as father time has finally crept up to one of the ten best basketball players of all time.
Los Angeles will be the Clippers city for at least the next handful of years. Makes you wonder what would have happened if the first Chris Paul trade would have gone through, doesn’t it?