Kobe, New and Old: A Los Angeles Lakers Season Preview
This year, for the first time, Hickory-High will be tackling the challenging of crafting season previews for all thirty NBA teams. Beginning today we’ll be rolling out these previews, one each day, leading up to Opening Night. This was a task of considerable size and complexity and it required the help of every member of our staff. The only guidelines given were that each writer approach team by staying true to their own style and the result is season previews of a difference sort. We hope you enjoy!
When I was a kid, Kobe Bryant was my favorite basketball player. I loved his baby fro, his behind-the-back dribble, his windmills, his tomahawks and his fadeaways.
Things are different now. Kobe is different now, several times over.
Remember 2002? That’s when the Kobe-Shaq Lakers won the last of their three championships. There was no need to anoint the next Jordan. Kobe had anointed himself with each fadeaway and fist pump.
But the narrative fell apart just two years later. The Lakers, coming off a loss to the San Antonio Spurs in 2003, assembled a super team of sorts, adding aged versions of future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Stunningly, the Lakers lost to the no-name Detroit Pistons in the 2004 Finals, Kobe’s bursts to the basket stifled by a mess of limbs called Tayshaun Prince, backed by a pair of scowling Wallaces.
After that, Kobe and Shaq divorced. Shaq got custody of me (He has since lost me by ruining ‘Inside the NBA’). Kobe had changed. He would not be a sidewalk any longer. He was still changing. Soon, the fro was gone. This was a New Kobe. He went from No. 8 to No. 24. He got a bunch of tattoos. He got rid of Phil Jackson. He scored 81 points. He got rid of Rudy Tomjanovich. He stopped passing to teammates in the playoffs. This new Kobe wasn’t pretty.
But the Lakers always come back. Phil Jackson came back. The Lakers seemingly swindled their way into Pau Gasol (though Marc turned out to be pretty good himself). New Kobe became New New Kobe. He started trusting his teammates. It helped that they were better. Aside from Pau, there was Lamar Odom, at the peak of his do-it-all powers; Metta World Peace, still ferocious on defense and a neverending element of surprise; and Andrew Bynum, in a spring thaw between catastrophic knee injuries. New New Kobe won two rings and banished most of the demons of the divorce.
Things got weird after that. The Lakers got swept aside in Dallas’ magical 2011 championship run. Andrew Bynum took his shirt off for some reason and Phil Jackson retired. And after a decade of the Lakers being the most arresting storyline in the NBA, suddenly people couldn’t stop talking about the Miami Heat.
They still won’t stop, at least not because of the Lakers. Last year may go down as one of the most dysfunctional in Lakers history. Everyone suddenly looked old: Pau, Metta, Antawn Jamison and Steve Nash all had down years. Even Dwight Howard, the young star the Lakers hoped would replace Bynum, and eventually, Bryant, looked sluggish, still bothered by a lingering back injury. Everyone except Kobe. The 34-year-old had one of his most efficient shooting seasons in years and with Nash missing almost half the season, ran Mike D’Antoni‘s offense for long stretches of the year.
But the weight was apparently too much to bear. Kobe tore his Achilles tendon in April. The Spurs crushed the Lakers in four games in the playoffs. Dwight left. Metta was cut lose.
When the Lakers start the 2013-14 season, Jach Nicholson will still be sitting courtside. But he’ll look out on opening night and see one of the worst Laker lineups in years. Yes, he’ll see Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, but also Chris Kaman, Nick Young and Jodie Meeks. It’s been almost a decade since Kaman played all 82 games. His 48% career FG% is not impressive for a center, and he’s slower than Dwight Howard, even with a bad back. He’s no savior. Nick Young is an unrepentant chucker. I can’t see Mike D’Antoni getting him to repent. Jodie Meeks is a solid young role player. He would look great playing alongside Kobe. He will look less great in Kobe’s starting spot.
It’s unclear when Kobe will return to fill the void. Last year he was the best Laker. This year, he will have to be again. An Achilles tendon tear is a catastrophic injury, even for a professional athlete. Kobe is reportedly ahead of his recovery schedule and he has a magic doctor in Germany to rejuvenate his knee, but when he returns, don’t expect him to be New New New Kobe. Each generation of Kobe Bryant has added something new: that Jordan fadeaway, that Hakeem post game, that Phil Jackson Zen. Now, he’s just trying to get back on the court. Now, he might just be old Kobe. And that Kobe, and this edition of the Lakers, might struggle again just to make the playoffs, even assuming Pau and Nash stay healthy.