More so than any other team in the league, the purple-and-gold-clad squad that resides in the Staples Center has experienced vertigo-inducing highs and stomach-churning lows during a roller coaster of a basketball season.
Let's rewind to the end of October, when the Mamba was gearing up to play alongside Dwight Howard and Steve Nash during the regular season. It's a natural place to start, because since then nothing has followed a logical progression.
How did Kobe get from there to where we stand now? Let's take a look.
Eric Pincus @EricPincus
The Lakers may be better than they were a few weeks ago - I can't say I know that to be true yet2/3/2013, 7:10:12 AM
On paper, the Lakers began the 2012-13 campaign as one of the favorites to hoist the coveted Larry O'Brien Trophy at the end of the postseason. Even though the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat returned many of the players that got them to the 2012 NBA Finals, the Lakers were still viewed as the team to beat in many camps.
Expectations were simply sky-high in L.A.
After all, that's what happens when Kobe and Pau Gasol are joined by Nash and D12, two unquestioned superstars when healthy.
When ESPN asked 35 writers to make their preseason picks, eight people chose the Lakers to end up on top. There were 26 who chose the Heat, and only Beckley Mason rolled with the Thunder.
It was even worse when they picked their projected Pacific Division champions. Scoop Jackson and Israel Gutierrez had the foresight to go with the Los Angeles Clippers, but the other 33 members of the panel all selected the other team that calls the City of Angels home.
It's not like I'm just picking on ESPN here. We all fell for the trap:
That's not a screenshot I'm particularly proud of, even though I cautioned readers against expecting too much at the start of the season. While I started out well, my predictions took a bit of a nosedive when I said the following:
However, they'll remain in the upper tier of power rankings and avoid panic mode. Then things will start clicking during the second half of the season, resulting in an absolute juggernaut that rolls through the rest of the league for weeks at a time.
When it's all said and done in the regular season, the Lakers will trail only the Oklahoma City Thunder in the standings.
The second sentence there could still prove to be true, but the first one was about as wrong as possible.
It all started with the first few games of the season.
The Short-Lived Mike Brown Era
After losing all eight preseason games, the Lakers tipped off against the Dallas Mavericks and promptly started in the red. They lost 99-91 despite an 11-of-14 performance from Kobe and 22 points, and 13 rebounds and six assists from Gasol.
Two more losses gave L.A. its first 0-3 record to start a season in 34 years and prompted Kobe to begin his transition into the wily old veteran who won't hesitate to speak what's on his mind when the media comes calling.
Telling Lakers fans to hush up and let his team work after the second loss of the season shouldn't have become as controversial as it did. After all, the Lakers were developing chemistry at the time; the losses weren't all that surprising.
What Bryant didn't know was that the losing would continue, and a scapegoat was needed. Once it was clear that the newly installed Princeton offense wasn't going to bring about any magical changes, head coach Mike Brown became that scapegoat and was canned just five games into the season.
The Lakers were just 1-4 at the time, the reins handed to interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff while the brass hunted for a new clipboard holder.
Kobe Hits 30,000
We're going to fast-forward ahead a little bit here, bypassing the entirety of the Bickerstaff era and glossing over the Phil Jackson drama.
With new head coach Mike D'Antoni and his fast-paced offensive system in place, the Lakers essentially tread water during November. Despite Kobe's torrid shooting pace and gaudy point totals, the team floundered away under the pressure of the preseason expectations, remaining at, below or just above .500 for most of the month.
On Dec. 5, the Lake Show traveled to New Orleans on a two-game losing streak.
In his encore to dropping 39 points against the Houston Rockets in a losing effort, Kobe scored another 29, including the 30,000th point of his career. When he dropped in that tough floating shot over the outstretched arm of Robin Lopez, he became the fifth player in NBA history to break that threshold.
Even more impressively, he was younger than the other four—Wilt Chamberlain, Karl Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan—when he hit the milestone. He had played the most career minutes of the group, however.
Seeing as the Lakers left the bayou with a 9-10 record, it was an important moment of success in a young season filled with failure.
High-Scoring Run Continues, Lakers Keep Losing
Kobe's red-hot scoring pace wouldn't cool off any time soon. The problem was the Lakers just couldn't seem to win a game.
After that history-making win over the Hornets, L.A. dropped four contests in a row to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz, Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks. The failure to take down the Cavs, even though the game was played in Quicken Loans Arena, was particularly embarrassing.
It's not like Kobe was just jacking up shots at this point either. Instead, he was playing with efficiency never before seen in his career. It was hard to find much fault with his offensive performance.
That didn't stop people from trying to point out a strange correlation between Kobe's scoring and the Lakers' level of success, as ESPN's Chris Palmer did here on Dec. 7 after the 114-108 loss to the Thunder:
Palmer didn't try to infer causation from correlation here—fortunately for his credibility—but quite a few people did, conveniently overlooking that Bryant was often trying to shoot his team back into a game when it fell behind, as opposed to taking his foot off the pedal once a large enough lead was achieved.
By the time the Lakers had sunk to a new low at 9-14, and just 1-11 in games when Kobe scored 30-plus points.
Return to .500
Chris Martin Palmer @ChrisPalmerNBA
Lakers 1-8 when Kobe scores 30+. Thunder 5-1 when Durant hits 30.12/8/2012, 5:27:24 AM
Did Kobe let that type of shortsighted analysis deter him from lofting up shot after shot?
If you even considered answering "yes," then I'd just like to make sure that you realize which Kobe we're talking about. This is the one that lives to score the basketball and win games.
Instead of listening to the critics and taking more of a backseat, Kobe continued on with the status quo. In fact, it wasn't until a 104-87 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, a game in which he scored 27, that the Mamba failed to break the 30-point barrier.
That game ended his streak of 30 or more points at 10, but more importantly, it got the Lakers back to .500. It was a stretch of performances that included a 34-point outing on Christmas Day against the
Syracuse Orange New York Knicks, among other great performances.
At this point, 30 games into the 82-game season, this was undoubtedly one of the highs on the roller-coaster ride.
The Losses Start Up Again
See the difference in facial expressions here? The contrast of Kobe Bryant's glum look and the cocky smirk on the mug of Russell Westbrook underscore the directions their respective clubs were heading after a 116-101 victory by the Thunder on Jan. 11.
A new season began when the calendars flipped to 2013 for the Lakers—how many times have we heard that narrative during the 2012-13 season?—but it didn't get off to a promising start, much like the real one back in October.
The Philadelphia 76ers kick-started 2013 for the Lakers, handing them a 103-99 loss in front of their hometown fans despite 36 points from Kobe on 14-of-29 shooting.
Not even a 26-rebound performance from Dwight Howard could save the Lakers during the first portion of January. Perhaps in search of a distraction from the on-court misery, Kobe finally caught up with the rest of the Internet and joined Twitter on Jan. 4 following a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, one game before the D12 rebounding show.
Here was his welcome to the Twitterverse:
Kobe Bryant @kobebryant
The antisocial has become social #mambatweets1/4/2013, 5:13:01 PM
While he might not have given in to his own self-doubt as he continued to put up points with a remarkable combination of volume and efficiency, Kobe's presence on Twitter didn't exactly change things for the Lake Show.
The losses kept piling up, and L.A. eventually ended up on a six-game losing streak that dropped its record to 15-21. It also depressed the fans, including perhaps the most famous member of Lakers Nation.
Kobe Bryant @kobebryant
Thoughts of self doubt Am I done? Is this how my career will end?? I REFUSE to give in to these thoughts. #strongwill #countonchallenges1/5/2013, 7:59:53 AM
In the fourth quarter of the 15-point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, a game that wasn't anywhere near as competitive as the final margin might indicate, Jack Nicholson stood up from his courtside seat and exited the building.
No action during the 2012-13 season has better personified the horror the Lakers have experienced than leaving that seat vacant for the last seven minutes of the blowout.
When Jack couldn't bear to watch the finishing strokes of Kevin Durant's 42-point masterpiece, it was perfectly clear that the Lakers weren't shining all that brightly.
Mini-Streak of Victories
In a bit of a brief respite from the misery of constantly dropping games, the Lakers reeled off back-to-back victories against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks to give the illusion that they were turning around the season.
Kobe averaged 27 points, two rebounds and six assists on 21-of-33 shooting from the field during that short stretch, but it proved to be just a calm before another storm.
That frustrating roller coaster began another descent when LeBron James absolutely eviscerated the Lakers "defense." I have to put that last word in quotations because I'm not sure it actually existed at this point in the season.
Instead, it might have been a hypothetical entity, something that D'Antoni and Co. talked about to fool the general public into believing that it actually existed. If it was there, it certainly didn't affect LeBron, who recorded one of the best games of his career: 39 points, seven rebounds, eight assists, one block and three steals on 17-of-25 shooting.
When LeBron went into freight-train mode and wanted to get to the rim, that's exactly what happened. L.A.'s "defense" was as porous as possible, and the reigning MVP's performance was a great example of the complete inability to protect the rim.
Kobe was ever gracious in defeat:
It turns out the Mamba was right about one thing and wrong about another. The Lakers did indeed have plenty of work to do and quite a few puzzles to solve, but they weren't getting better right after the loss to the Heat.
Three more losses quickly reared their ugly heads as the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies pushed the Lakers' record down to 17-25. Nothing was working, even with Steve Nash back in the lineup.
So what did Kobe do after the 106-93 beatdown at the hands of a Grizzlies team that still featured Rudy Gay? He did exactly what everyone would expect him to do and took to the piano:
Kobe Bryant @kobebryant
Great game by James, wade and the heat. Tip my hat. We r getting better. Still plenty of work to do and puzzles to fit #keepfocus1/18/2013, 7:41:25 AM
Wait, what? That's not what you were expecting?
While my enduring question deals with the temperature of that room, it's clear that Beethoven's presence in Kobe's life had a positive effect.
Kobe Moves to Primary Facilitating Role
Kobe Bryant @kobebryant
Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata calms me down when I reach my breaking point #relaxandfocus http://t.co/i2imK51p1/22/2013, 1:58:56 PM
Then again, the Lakers' metamorphosis into an early-game juggernaut that barely hangs on to the lead in late-game situations might not be entirely due to the music of a man who's been six feet under since 1827.
Mike D'Antoni's willingness to let Steve Nash play off the ball, allowing Kobe to take over as the primary facilitator, might be making the difference.
Since a scarf-wearing Kobe sat down at that piano and then became a pass-first combo guard, the Lakers have gone 4-1, including an impressive victory at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Michael Beasley—on a rare on-night—and the Phoenix Suns kept the Lakers from reeling off five in a row, but even creeping back to 21-26 on the season is a positive at the moment.
Kobe finished just shy of a triple-double in the first three games of the streak, recording 14 points, nine rebounds and 14 assists against the Utah Jazz; 21 points, nine rebounds and 14 assists against the Thunder; and then 14 points, eight rebounds and 11 assists against the New Orleans Hornets.
Ever since that change in offensive philosophy, the Mamba is averaging 16.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 11.2 assists per game. While the sample-size bells should be ringing, this helps prove just how talented this future Hall of Famer really is.
Ask him to change his role completely in the middle of the season, and he doesn't even require an adjustment period. He just goes out and starts making people wonder if he could manage to lead the Association in assists.
Whether we're going to keep seeing the Lakers climb the ranks of the Western Conference is still up in the air, but it's clear that the roller coaster of a season is starting to climb back up another hill.
It's been quite the ride for Kobe thus far. That safety harness is still secured, but he's not done experiencing the ups and downs yet.
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