Kobe Bryant has been on a quest for his sixth title since concluding the 2010 playoffs, and the road has never been tougher.
Bryant celebrated his fifth championship at the end of the 2009-10 season in an epic seven-game series. The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics in the title round, and it prompted this reaction from the Purple and Gold’s superstar:
General manager Mitch Kupchak brought back the same core for the 2010-11 season, and the Lakers were favored to make it back to the NBA Finals. Instead, the Dallas Mavericks swept Los Angeles in the second round of the playoffs on their way to the title.
The ensuing season was somewhat derailed because of the lockout. The NBA season typically debuts around Halloween night, but instead labor negotiations dragged into December with the 2011-12 campaign making its debut on Christmas day.
Prior to the season tipping off, the Lakers executed a trade that would have set them up for title contention for years to come: Los Angeles acquired Chris Paul, shipped Pau Gasol to the Houston Rockets and the New Orleans Hornets received Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Lamar Odom, Goran Dragic and a 2012 draft pick Houston had obtained from the New York Knicks.
However, David Stern infamously vetoed the trade for basketball reasons, and Lamar Odom consequently refused to rejoin the Lakers because he had been included in the swap.
Thus, Odom was sent over to the Mavericks in exchange for a 2012 first-round pick. Los Angeles lost its best reserve player as well as an essential ingredient to its closing lineup. Nonetheless, the Lakers still had Bryant as well as their twin towers in Andrew Bynum and Gasol.
The Purple and Gold still had a championship core, whereas the remainder of the league was somewhat of a question mark aside from the San Antonio Spurs. The Oklahoma City Thunder were young and inexperienced, while the Mavericks had lost their defensive anchor in Tyson Chandler.
The Miami Heat had not yet reached the mountaintop and thus were still the league’s great unknown. With a couple of breaks, Bryant and company could represent the west in the finals.
Mind you, the Thunder dispatched L.A. in the second round of the playoffs. The elimination prompted Kupchak to make a series of moves to get Bryant some help.
The Lakers got their hands on Dwight Howard in a four-team trade that should have altered the landscape of the Western Conference. Howard was recovering from a back injury, but many felt as though he would regain his form during the 2012-13 season and reestablish himself as the game’s premier center.
Furthermore, Los Angeles obtained Steve Nash from the Phoenix Suns in a sign-and-trade deal. The Lakers orchestrated these moves and had some fairly important basketball people believe the team was destined for a title.
This makes them [Lakers] ahead of Oklahoma City and I think they will win the championship.
In Nash, Bryant, Gasol and Howard, the Lakers arguably had a top-10 player at their respective positions. Consequently, they were expected to steamroll their way to the 2012-13 title. Arash Markazi of ESPNLA wrote:
And after Thursday's news that Howard will be traded to the Lakers as early as Friday, it's not hard to picture him winning his first championship in Los Angeles.
Yes, that's right, Miami, there is a new challenger to your throne, and this team has a "Big Four" to trump your "Big Three."
Los Angeles had all the right pieces in place, but injuries and a coaching change derailed the team. Mike Brown was fired early in the season and replaced with Mike D’Antoni.
The former New York Knicks head coach struggled initially to blend the talents of his stars together, and the team’s overall play suffered. Further exacerbating issues for D’Antoni, he lost Nash to a broken leg for a large chunk of the season and Gasol was sidelined due to a tear of his plantar fascia.
Also, Howard missed a handful of games with a torn labrum, while Bryant ruptured his Achilles with a few games remaining in the 2012-13 regular season. Even role players such as Jordan Hill and Metta World Peace were lost for lengthy periods of the year.
The injuries coupled with the challenges D’Antoni faced in playing his stars together led to a sweep at the hands of the Spurs in the opening round of the 2013 playoffs.
In the wake of the elimination and the standard set by Bryant to play at all costs, Howard left the Lakers during the 2013 summer and joined the Houston Rockets.
The exit of the three-time Defensive Player of the Year left the Lakers with a core of Nash, Bryant and Gasol heading into the 2013-14 season. Considering the amount of time Nash missed in 2012-13 due to injury, it is fair to wonder whether the Lakers can count on him to remain healthy going forward.
In addition, with Bryant rehabbing from his Achilles injury, the Lakers do not have any clear indication on what to expect from the superstar in 2013-14. He might very well rediscover his form or be a shell of his former self.
The Lakers will be hard-pressed to compete for a title given their internal concerns, but things become infinitely more complex when we take into account the rest of the league.
The Miami Heat have won back-to-back titles and are the favorites to claim the 2013-14 championship. They have been dominant at times and will give the Purple and Gold a run for their money in the event they were to meet in the NBA Finals.
However, the Lake Show still has to go through a series of great opponents in the Western Conference before they can even contemplate facing the Heat. The Spurs swept them in 2012-13 and will bring back the same unit that made a run all the way to the 2013 finals.
Oklahoma City was without an injured Russell Westbrook during the 2013 playoffs, but he is expected to be ready for training camp. Thus, the Thunder will once again stand in the way of the Lakers in 2013-14 and beyond.
Los Angeles struggled to contain Kevin Durant during the 2012 playoffs and have since lost Metta World Peace. He was their top perimeter defender but was a casualty of the amnesty provision during the 2013 offseason.
In other words, defending Oklahoma City is a far more difficult task for D’Antoni and company in comparison to previous seasons.
The Thunder and Spurs already flexed their muscles by eliminating the Lakers from the playoffs respectively in 2012 and 2013. There are additional foes that have since been added and that complicate the postseason equation for Los Angeles.
Houston boasts a tandem of James Harden and Dwight Howard that promises to be formidable. ESPN.com projects the Rockets will finish with the fourth best record in the Western Conference (as a matter of a full disclosure, I was one of the 215 panelists that voted).
The Rockets are set up to contend for years to come given the ages of their superstars. Harden will be 24 years old by the time the 2013-14 training camp opens, while Howard will be a 27-year-old top-flight center.
The Lakers simply do not have the horses to compete with the best teams in the west. Heck, they do not even have the talent to battle for supremacy in their own town.
Indeed, the Los Angeles Clippers won all four of their contests against the Lakers in 2012-13 and actually upgraded their roster. The Clippers added depth at the wing positions with the acquisitions of J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley.
In addition, the franchise brought in a top-five head coach in Doc Rivers. His track record suggests the Clippers will be an elite defensive team as well as a unit that executes well coming out of timeouts.
Chris Paul and his teammates beat the Lakers like a drum in 2012-13 and added a coaching staff to address their weaknesses. Consequently, it stands to reason that Blake Griffin will have several signature moments against their in-town rivals.
Bryant’s elusive sixth ring does not appear to be in the cards in 2013-14. Luckily for the Lakers, they have managed their finances in a way that could give them cap room to sign two superstars provided Bryant takes a huge pay cut in the 2014 offseason.
To be fair, the two-time Finals MVP has made it clear he does not intend to take a salary reduction, thus the Purple and Gold will probably sign one great player instead of two.
That would suggest Bryant will then be armed with his best chance at his sixth title, but even that is debatable. There is a very distinct possibility the Lakers will not be able to get their hands on an elite-caliber player in 2014, which means Bryant will be right where he is going into 2013-14: on the outside looking in at the championship race.