As if Kobe Bryant needed more rocket fuel splashed onto the already raging inferno that is his competitive fire, ESPN officially pegged the Los Angeles Lakers to finish 12th in the Western Conference in the 2013-14 NBA season.
Bryant's response was a brief, smoldering tweet, barely concealing what must have been some serious rage:
12th I see..— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) August 14, 2013
L.A. finished seventh in the West a year ago, so a five-spot drop would be pretty significant. But there are actually some good reasons for ESPN's devaluation of the Lakers.
Obviously, the departure of Dwight Howard is going to hurt. As unimpressive as he was in his cameo as a Laker, he was still exceptionally productive by mere mortal standards. It's not like transferring all of his minutes to some combination of Chris Kaman and Robert Sacre is going to result in an improvement.
It also seems like ESPN is betting against a fully healthy return for Bryant. Despite all of the incredible reports about his superhuman recovery, it's still probably wise to take a skeptical view of the soon-to-be 35-year-old's comeback until he proves he really is his old self.
The notable additions to some of the West's contenders is another factor at play here.
The Los Angeles Clippers added a functioning coach to replace Vinny Del Negro, and brought in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley to space the floor. They'll be better this year.
The Houston Rockets improved at the Lakers' expense, adding Howard. And the Golden State Warriors shed almost all of the roster's dead weight in exchange for Andre Iguodala. Put simply, wins will be harder to come by for the Lakers this season.
Still, it's tough to imagine a world in which the New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves all finish ahead of Kobe's Lakers. Nobody's saying L.A. is a lock to make the postseason, but let's all keep in mind that ESPN seems to think that next year's Lakers will be just a couple of games better than the dreadful 2004-05 edition of the team that featured such luminaries in the starting lineup as Chris Mihm and Chucky Atkins.
Kobe has been on terrible teams before. The current version of the Lakers isn't quite that bad.
It's probably telling that Kobe's next two tweets focused on Kendrick Lamar's internet-consuming takedown of just about every notable name in the hip-hop community.
Somebody fill me in on the @kendricklamar verse plz— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) August 14, 2013
Get ready for No. 24 to adopt a similarly confrontational approach when the season starts. Well, either that or he'll record a diss track that lists some of the 215 members of ESPN's expert panel who contributed to the rankings.
Watch your back, Henry Abbott.