Kobe Bryant sat in front of a sea of reporters waiting to document the Lakers’ most recent playoff exit at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder. We’ve seen Bean in situations like this and 99% of the time he always provides at least one quotable. Last night was no different. With a devilish grin mixed with annoyance, Kobe answered a misleading question – in pretty much the most Kobe-like fashion – regarding if the Lakers’ time at basketball’s mountaintop was over.
“I’m not fading into the shadows…I’m not going anywhere. We’re not going anywhere. It’s not one of those things where the Bulls beat the Pistons and the Pistons disappeared forever. I’m not going for that sh*t…Come hell or high water, we’re going to be there again. It’s just something about the Lakers organization.”
Kobe’s right about one thing. There is something about the Lakers organization. They’re under the biggest spotlight (Miami the last two seasons as their main competition), with the most polarizing superstars (again, Miami) in one of the biggest media orgies on the planet. They’ll always be relevant because of the history and never-ending fascination pop culture has with them. But this was Kobe speaking after losing 4-1 to a Thunder squad showing no signs of intimidation. Kobe’s late game blunders (excluding Game 3’s 18-18 from the charity stripe) became the subject of ridicule. Then, the provocative revelation he had yet to nail a game winner since the 2007 playoffs surfaced. Suddenly, the most clutch player of his era saw backlash for the one area of his game analysts, critics and fans alike dubbed as virtually unshakable. Then, there was the mini-controversy of throwing Pau Gasol under the bus for the second time in as many series.
Then, Game 5 happened. From the opening tip it was evident “Gunner Kobe” was going to ride off in the sunset throwing everything on the table. It almost was like watching the scene from Set It Off when Queen Latifah drove directly into a crowd of bullets and cop cars. He finished with 42 points, five rebounds, zero assists and a 16 point loss. Kobe had finally lost trust in his teammates. Suddenly, the 2010 Finals seemed a lifetime ago.
The Lakers and their fanbase operate in the present. Knee-jerk reactions from Lakers faithful all demanded massive changes this offeseason. Trade Andrew Bynum for a reported unwilling Dwight Howard. Trade Pau for Josh Smith (and Jeff Teague if the Hawks GM’s fall asleep at the wheel). Somehow lure Deron Williams away from Dallas and/or Brooklyn. And invest in a new coach. All sound enticing, and realizing we’re dealing with the Lakers, not all that unfathomable.
The only reality check occurs when taking a glance at what the squad owes Kobe. Next season, $27.8M. The year after, $30.4M. That’s $58M on the cap on one player. An all-world player who finished second in the league in scoring* (and probably would have finished #1 had he not sat out the final game of the season). The same one player tagged as the closest specimen to Michael Jordan and arguably the finest player of his generation. But $58M is $58M and with new salary cap and luxury tax requirements, what type flexibility does that leave Lakers with this offseason? And keep in mind, unless they’re moved via trade, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum stand to collect $34M combined next year**.
To be fair, the Chris Paul trade that wasn’t all but screwed L.A.’s season before it got off the ground. Lamar Odom forced his way out of town only to quit on the Mavericks. Pau played the entire season with one bag packed and Bynum had quite possibly the strangest season for a star center in recent memory. He went from trade bait, to being labeled the best at his skill set in the NBA, to the eternerally-entertaining YOLO threes to all but packing it in for the second consecutive postseason. Oh, and seeing CP3 end up on the team they share the Staples Center with only to spawn into one of the five most exciting teams to watch? That type of bad luck just doesn’t happen to the Lakers.
For as many needs as The Black Mamba and the Lakers supposedly need to take on this summer, the big question is simply, “how?” It’s not saying they can’t but, yeah, how? In a sense, however, I hark back towards Kobe’s quote. The Lakers will be back next year. They’ll make the playoffs and Bean’s fight for that elusive sixth ring will begin all over again in what will be his 17th trip around the barn. The only thing is, unless L.A.’s front office can work magic (no pun intended) – who haven’t exactly had the best of luck recently – it could very well be with the same core (or one not significantly better) who happen to be 1-8 in their last nine semifinal games.
Bonus: Yeah, the Lakers lost, but this reverse dunk from Bean had 1997 Dunk Contest written all over it. And somewhere in America, Brandy wept. Tears of joy.
* – For what it’s worth for those who get off on numbers, he averaged 28 points a game while taking 24 shots each night out.
** – Bynum has a team option for next season