My annual Thanksgiving trip to Los Angeles did not hold the promise of trips past. A year ago, I arrived in time to watch the Lakers win a game and even their record at 8-8. Even though there was considerable hand-wringing going on (Kobe had agreed to his new contract and the common opinion of the Laker faithful was that he was greedy, which, makes him different in L.A. how?), there was the always-entertaining Lakers optimism.
Lakers fans are my favorites because unlike fanatics supporting some teams, they are not boisterous in a mean-spirited way.
Instead, it’s more like they are entitled in an arrogant sort of way. That is a product of 16 championships and a cast of legends who made the franchise a blockbuster even before it settled near Hollywood.
Consider centers. In Lakers history – which is 67 years including the first 12 in Minneapolis – the center has answered to the name of Mikan, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar or O’Neal during 34 of those years. Throw in a Magic Johnson for 13 years and Kobe Bryant for 19, and anyone would tend to take greatness for granted, especially when Jerry West, another franchise icon, was so accomplished that he became the silhouette for the NBA logo.
But this year, the Laker swag was nowhere to be found. At this time last year, much of the discussion was about what premium free agent – LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, etc., — would be coming to the Lakers and in what year. A few realists admitted a championship was a long shot last year – although since Bryant played 16 games before missing the rest of the season with a knee injury, there were still faint hopes at Thanksgiving for a little Laker magic.
Regardless, the feeling was that when the franchise rightfully obtained its next great player, the Lakers would be restored to their proper station in life.
But that was before an offseason when the prize was re-signing Jordan Hill, a player who is developing, but probably not a candidate for the rafters. That was before the reality of a season-ending injury to 20-year-old rookie Julius Randle and before another injury to Steve Nash, who is lost for the year.
That was before a crushing a 3-13 start including 1-8 at home, which has now created a new sort of hope among Lakers Nation – that their 2015 No. 1 pick is in the top five. If it is, they do not have to give it to the Suns as compensation for the deal that brought Steve Nash to the Lakers. That turns out to be a gifted bit of general managing on the part of Mitch Kupchak, albeit unintentional.
After completing the last year of a three-year deal, Nash will have played in 65 of a possible 246 regular season games for the Lakers. Which calls for a reminder of what the Lakers gave up for him: Two first-round picks, two-second round picks, and a pile of the Buss family’s cash.
Hoping for an impact lottery pick is a nice fantasy about the future, but what about right now? Since there is no hope for the playoffs, what keeps Lakers fans busy?
Easy. It’s now all-Kobe, all the time.
The Lakers are not going to win many games, so the only entertainment is how much Kobe shoots, how many he makes, how many he misses and whether he’s shooting too much. Does he have the proper amount of trust for his teammates? When he does shoot, are they good shots? And if he does trust them and doesn’t shoot enough, is he being too passive? This sort of talk fills hours of radio programming and, well, it’s about the only interesting issue involving the Lakers at this moment.
“It’s a process,” Kupchak told reporters when asked about Kobe’s barrage of shots last week. “Clearly some guys are going to shoot more in some games and some games they’re not going to shoot as much. As evidenced by the last three or four games, some games Kobe’s more aggressive offensively and some games he isn’t.”
Well . . . OK.
Bryant’s current shooting percentage is .388, by far the worst of his career. But he also objectively looks at his fellow starters – Hill, Wesley Johnson, Carlos Boozer and Jeremy Lin – and, well, if you were him, what would do? Shoot or pass?
There was a thorough article in the Los Angeles Times on the dilemmas – that’s plural – Bryant faces not only with limited teammates, but also with his own body. In the last two years, Bryant has had surgery to repair his left Achilles tendon and his left knee.
Besides currently leading the NBA in scoring – and, the nitpickers would point out – shots taken and missed, Bryant also ranks 12th in minutes played per game with 35.6 per game. If you look at the 11 players who have played more, however, only the Nets’ Deron Williams is at least 30 years old.
John Wall, the player who ranks immediately ahead of Bryant, is 24. Bryant is 36.
Times beat writer Mike Bresnahan made the point that to play heavy minutes, Bryant needs to constantly work on leg strength. But if he works too hard in the weight room, he could tire himself out. And he’s also pushing a left leg that has been operated on twice in the last two years.
“It’s a fine balance at 36, trying to find the rhythm of strengthening your legs as the season goes on without wearing them out,” Bryant told the Times. “We’re in uncharted territory in terms of figuring this out. But we will.”
That may be true, but the Lakers are currently the worst team in the Western Conference. No matter how well Bryant plays, they won’t get much better. It’s a sad state for a team that has long been synonymous with glamour. At this point in their history, they have exactly one thing going for them.
There may be no reason for an abundance of hope, but, well, at least they get to watch and debate Kobe.
And that is still entertaining.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.
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