Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Kobe Chronicles

Louie the Pug
I so wanted to write about the Mets crazy fun comeback Tuesday night but it will have to wait. S.O.L. cannot let an uncharacteristic Kobe meltdown go by without adding my two cents.

On a message board elsewhere, someone made a joke about the effect of the draft lottery on Kobe Bryant. The poster mused that upon seeing that two young, talented teams in the West were about to get better fast by virtue of this year's top-two-spot-heavy NBA Draft, Kobe saw his future and it suddenly dawned on him that there would be no more NBA rings in it.

With Portland and Seattle drafting one-two in this year's NBA draft and getting what everyone has rightly concluded are franchise-altering players, the best side of the NBA just got downright beastly. Even without adding a Greg Oden and a Kevin Durant, the Blazers and Sonics were already chockful of talented youngins.

And Kobe's Lakers? Mired in fat salaries and mediocrity, and with no apparent or obvious way to get better as fast as their leader wants, they are no longer a lock to even make the playoffs next year. And even the thick-headed Kobe can see the writing on the wall.

I don't think it's farfetched to imagine Kobe waking up the other morning and choking on his Wheaties. Think about it. With everything being equal and barring major injury, there's no way the current Lakers jump passed even an unimproved Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio, Houston, Denver or Utah. That's six of eight playoff spots tied up for the near future. For the sake of argument, let's say Golden State is a lot closer to their second-half selves than their first (and why not, after the trade and when two of their injured stars returned, they were almost unbeatable) and let's further argue (though with some reservations) that the Clippers will rebound from a strangely disappointing season (also marred in part by injuries).

Six plus two equals Lakers in the lottery .

Let's suppose though, that I am overrating the Clippers. Not a hard thing to do in my book and then let's give Kobe the benefit of the doubt and add a healthy Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown playing out his contract year (they should do a study on how athletes perform in the walk year. I bet we'd discover to our "surprise" that it's statistically their best seasons). An older and presumably wiser Jordan Farmar and the return of Chris Mihm (I know, big fucking deal) and improved play of Andrew Bynum. Let's say this is enough to make the Lakers competitive for a playoff spot.

But realistically you're looking at one or two spots at best, and that's if you think Denver or Golden State are overrated, too (and I'm not saying they're aren't). But really, who was better more recently -- Warriors, Nuggets or Lakers? See what I mean?

If you believe in the Nuggets and the Warriors and you think the jury's out on the Clips, that leaves Seattle, Lakers, Memphis, Portland, Clippers and Sacramento to fight for the one playoff spot.

Forget the Kings and the Grizz for the moment (they suck) and a blind soccer fan can see what Kobe sees -- a long way up and no place to go.

The Clippers have the pieces in place in Brand, Corey MG and the young point guard Livingston (who is coming off a season-ending injury and has a lot to prove) plus a good bench. They were as beset by injuries as anyone last year and Brand is a true leader who will not let his team falter for a second year in a row. The clock is ticking for him playoff-wise too.

Seattle and Portland will get better right away with their draft picks -- Seattle in my mind will get better faster (if they can re-sign free agent Rashard Lewis) but even without Oden, the Trailblazers are loaded with young talent and ask anybody who ever played in the NBA (who isn't named Don Nelson or Michael Jordan) and they'll tell you hands down the most important element of a championship team is a great big man.

And speaking of Rashard Lewis who surprised a lot of people by opting out of his contract after the season (and after the draft). It's possible he re-signs with Seattle (or re-signs and is dealt elsewhere like to S.O.L.'s Knicks who have offered Jamaal Crawford, Nate Robinson and others to the Sonics) but what if he ends up in Houston (his hometown) or what, God help Kobe, takes less to go to San Antonio or even Dallas or the Suns? And who doesn't think any of those teams, especially the Suns, Mavs and Jazz, who came oh-so-close to breaking through this year, will not go out and get better. All three are in good financial shape to make a move. Even Houston has options.

For real, Kobe is seeing his career flash before his eyes. Even he should see, though, that the Lakers only true long-term solution is to sit tight, draft wisely and wait for next summer at least when Kwame Brown and the Space Cadet comes off the books. Maybe then, they'll get a great draft pick, Bynum will have developed into an elite center and Farmar a steady point guard and with the cap room they can sign a big-time free-agent. But we're talking minimum two seasons and the big question isn't whether the Lakers can do it or even if Lakers fans can stand another down year or two, it's if Kobe can wait.

Chances are, based on the last week of frantic interviews and such, Kobe won't want to wait. He'll stew until they trade him (unlikely) or make a splashy trade for someone like Jermaine O'Neal (more likely and more uncertain) and then make the playoffs the next five years but lose in the first or second round because there's not enough players around Kobe and (O'Neal or whoever max-contract guy they trade their future for) because there's not enough money to left.

(And by the way, the only way they can get a guy like O'Neal is to trade Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown and who would take that deal? They'd have to give up something of value along the lines of the young Andrew Bynum or Jordan Farmar).

I'm Kobe, I take my chances. I bide my time and take care of my body. I shoot from the outside and pass up the pinball machine of the lane, and I practice being a better teammate and a good leader. And I pass the ball, a lot. I mean I become the Distributor of the Year and challenge Steve Nash for NBA assist leader and I do it with grace and dignity and with an eye to making my teammates better, not pay mind to who is leading the league in scoring.

And I don't care about W's either. I concentrate on getting better first and if we make the playoffs, than we give it our best shot but if we make the lottery, good for us cause we'll be smart and draft well and bring the kids along. Meanwhile, the bad salaries fall off our books and I personally woo a young superstar free agent to Lakerland. And I make him feel welcome.

And then our time comes around again and I'm only 31, 32 years old and even though there's miles of wear and tear on me, I'm still fresh cause I've been saving myself for this moment, when I can lead a young, talented group of playoff upstarts to the Promised Land. And I know we'll get there, because when the game is on the line and my team needs points, I can deliver. Or I can pass off to an open teammate ala Jordan-to-Steve Kerr or Tim Duncan-to-Bruce Bowen or LeBron-to-Daniel Gibson, because I've done it a thousand times the last three seasons and by now, they know I trust them to make it when I can't.

And my legacy will be written in stone -- a young stubborn, wildly talented superstar reinvents himself as a true leader and winner. And Los Angeles will be my oyster and no. 24 will dwarf the memories of Magic and Baylor, of the Logo and even Shaq.

That's how I would want to be remembered, if I'm Kobe Bryant.

Back to reality, however.

I don't think Kobe sees this in his future. I think he, like a lot of people, wants a quick fix and he's not willing to live with his part in creating the mess in the first place. Part of his latest disaffection, which has included calls for the Lakers to trade him, is his frustration at being blame for the departure of Shaquille O'Neal. In recent days, even, he has posted on his website how it was Jerry Buss who forced out Shaq and not Kobe. But I wonder if Buss would be so fast to dump Shaq if he and Kobe were getting along instead of openly feuding? Would he have balked at paying the Big Fella if Kobe said it was sign Shaq or see ya when I see ya?

What do you think, sports fans?

He doesn't see this which is one reason why I think he doesn't get his present situation either. He doesn't see how hard it's going to be for the Lakers to be competitive right now and how smart it would be to stick to a two- or three-year plan.

He doesn't see that his coveted legacy is the only thing that's taking a hit right now. Kobe's always looked out for himself first, no matter how many times he's protested otherwise. This week it's just more Kobe being Kobe and the Lakers will be worse for it I think.

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