How does Kobe Bryant feel this morning? Following Tuesday’s humiliating Game 6 loss, where he had to watch an opponent celebrate winning an NBA championship at his expense for the second time in his career, Kobe was clearly furious in his post-game press conference — I’ve rarely seen one man who wasn’t headed to prison giving the Death Stare to a room full of people whom he had no reason to be mad at. However long it takes for that first wave of anger and frustration to wear off, Kobe will ultimately be left with one feeling: That of a man who’s been teased. In a way, Kobe will look back on this season and feel betrayed.
Think back to last summer, around the time the Spurs were dismantling the Cavs in the ’07 Finals and Kobe had first declared his desire to be traded from the Lakers. At the time Kobe had just endured a second straight first-round playoff exit, carrying a roster on which Kwame Brown, Shammond Williams and Smush Parker all played prominent roles. With no immediate prospects for the Lakers improving on the horizon, their superstar was ready to go. Kobe was tired of losing, tired of his team not being among the League’s elite despite his own individual greatness, tired of watching other players win rings.
All during the offseason and even through Opening Night ’07, trade rumors persisted involving Kobe and teams like the Bulls, Suns and Knicks. But at the end of the day he stayed with the Lakers, despite the fact that the team’s major offseason acquisition was signing Derek Fisher, or that L.A.’s ’07 Draft haul (Javaris Crittenton, Sun Yue, Marc Gasol) was nothing to get excited about. Kobe stayed, and he was actually happy as the season progressed. It took him a while, but Kobe eventually saw Andrew Bynum turning into one of the League’s best centers in the first half of the season. He saw guys like Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton playing like they finally “got it.” He saw Lamar Odom producing consistently. Even after Bynum got hurt — an eventual season-ending injury — the deadline trade for Pau Gasol made Kobe even happier. I still remember the huge smile on Kobe’s face the night Gasol debuted for L.A. against the Nets: Kobe only had 6 points and injured his finger during the game, yet afterwards all he could talk about was how happy and thankful he was that Gasol was in his life.
On that night, Kobe felt legitimized. He felt that Lakers management had listened to him and done what was necessary to succeed. He felt like his team was going to win a championship.
The goodwill lasted through the end of the regular season, as the Lakers earned the #1 seed in the West and Kobe captured his first league MVP. It lasted through a first-round sweep of the Nuggets, through a relatively easy elimination of the Jazz in Round 2, and through a surprisingly efficient disposal of the Spurs in the conference finals.
And then the Celtics showed up. And well before the series-ending Game 6 loss, it became clear that the Lakers were simply not as good as Boston. After their colossal Game 4 meltdown, I wrote that the ’08 Lakers were in fact up there with the worst Finals teams in history. (Which, again I have to stress, doesn’t make them a bad team, just not as good as most teams that make it to the Finals.) Every flaw L.A. had was exposed and magnified in this series, and it certainly didn’t help that almost everyone on the team seemed to forget what had made them successful in the 100-something games before the Finals.
With the Lakers embarrassing themselves in last night’s loss and ending the season on such a sour note, Kobe could understandably feel like a man who’s been lied to. He bought into Gasol as a strong interior presence, then watched as the 7-footer shrunk from contact when facing Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins. Kobe bought into Odom being his Scottie Pippen-like sidekick with Swiss Army skills, just to watch L.O. play downright amateur-ish when it mattered most. Kobe bought into the idea that Fisher could be just as effective now as he was when Shaq was in L.A., only to see him come up short. Kobe even bought into Vladimir Radmanovic as a starter on a supposed championship contender. Ultimately, Kobe was led to believe his team was championship material, when it turns out he’ll spend the summer of ’08 the same way he spent the summer of ’07 — steaming over a depressing postseason exit, one where his team fell flat and left him feeling empty. This morning, there is part of Kobe Bryant that may feel like this was a wasted season.
So what does he do from here? Kobe was in no mood to talk about it last night, but it’s clear some changes have to be made if the Lakers want to have a realistic chance of winning a championship in 2009.
Odom will be entering the final year of his contract, making him even more attractive trade bait if the Lakers go that route. Ronny Turiaf is a free agent, Sasha Vujacic will possibly be a free agent, and Trevor Ariza can opt out of his contract. And while you’d have a hard time convincing Lakers’ fans of it, the team isn’t going to just automatically get over the hump when they Bynum back healthy. While the 7-footer does automatically address some rebounding and shot-blocking needs and could potentially form a lethal Twin Towers combo with Gasol, keep in mind he’s just 20 years old and has only really had one standout half-a-season in the NBA. If the Lakers are fortunate enough to get back to the Finals next season, is it out of the question that Bynum will get the dry-throat like Gasol and Odom did this year?
As the “It’s All Love” version of Kobe disappeared during the Finals in favor of the “I Can’t Stand These Clowns” version, I wonder which Kobe is going to resurface after he’s had time to reflect on the season that was. If he indeed does feel like the Lakers — from his teammates to the coaching staff to the front office — let him down, what will push Kobe to succeed in ’08-09 when he feels like he was in this same spot one year ago? Or even worse, what if he decides he’s been betrayed, and asks for a way out again?