Is this what it feels like to be an iconic NBA franchise in this era?
Perhaps the Los Angeles Lakers will always have their relevance, but this is turning out to be quite an uphill struggle back toward excellence.
The Lakers were hit with their latest deflating news Thursday, when an MRI exam revealed a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in Kobe Bryant’s left knee.
After failing to win a third consecutive NBA title in 2011, the Lakers were immediately force-fed the new collective bargaining agreement meant to give the small-market Sacramento Kings just as much of a chance to win championships as them. The Lakers swallowed hard but accepted the new landscape.
What might’ve been Chris Paul’s debut season ended with Pau Gasol disappearing and the Lakers blitzed by the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games. Mike Brown got the boot. Phil Jackson didn’t come back. Neither did Dwight Howard.
The biggest jolt of them all, really, was the death of Lakers owner Jerry Buss on Feb. 18, 2013, shaking the entire foundation of the franchise.
Along the way, Bryant did come back from a stunning ruptured Achilles tendon. It took almost eight months, but he was talking optimistically about “getting back to being myself” as he sat in the Lakers’ locker room Tuesday night after winning in Memphis.
He had no idea bone was already broken near his left knee, presenting all sorts of new challenges for him considering the left leg is already weaker than the right from the Achilles rupture.
But you don’t have to worry about Bryant all over again. It’s undeniable bad news, yet there is no basis for any assumption that he is the next Steve Nash with a string of setbacks halting an NBA legend’s ongoing drive to play the game.
Bryant’s bone will heal, and six weeks is barely a time frame that qualifies as “major” in the sports world. He will lose some weight while he’s away, as he realized he wanted to, and he can still come back and recapture standout form for the final two months of this season.
If he can play well in that time—and given his improvement in the past week with inspiring victories in Charlotte and Memphis, there’s good reason to believe he will—his fans’ major purpose for the season will still be served. In fact, Bryant reaching those heights after being knocked down a second time this season would be even greater inspiration to his legions of followers.
Bryant’s lone tweet Thursday: “#BrokenNotBeaten”…
But what of the Lakers? Here’s a valid question to ask, even though it’s Bryant whose body failed and he who now faces uncertainty anew: Who are you really more worried about here, Bryant or the Lakers?
In the middle of the waiting game early this season with Bryant sidelined as his Achilles healed, the Lakers’ 320-game home sellout streak ended—the first time Staples Center wasn’t filled for the Lakers in seven years.
As loved as the team is, it isn't at all the Lakers without Bryant. Earlier Thursday, he was announced to have the NBA’s second-highest-selling jersey after LeBron James so far this season, despite hardly playing and being in his 18th year with the same team.
Yes, the Lakers did go 10-9 without Bryant—Mike D’Antoni reestablishing his penchant for empowering role players with his free-flowing, quick-passing style. But even if Gasol bounces back some more and Nick Young develops his game dramatically and Jordan Farmar proves that other unheralded point guards can go insane under D’Antoni, the Lakers aren’t going to come close to reaching their potential without Bryant around to help them settle into realistic winning roles.
In just the past week, Gasol was pushed by Bryant—verbally and with trusting passes Gasol had to dig deeper to go get—to look the best he has all season. Bryant has been working with Young, who feels he’s at a point to get serious about his career. Bryant prodded Young late Monday night to study video of how the Atlanta Hawks defended him, even in one of Young’s better games—with Bryant warning Young that he’d get a follow-up question the next morning and “I can tell when you’re lying.”
This wasn’t ever expected to be the Lakers’ championship era revisited, but it very well could’ve been a deeply feel-good season. Fans have already enjoyed the team’s fabulous chemistry without Howard and all the weighty expectations. Bryant coming back strong for almost a full season to earn a playoff berth and even winning just one playoff series would have absolutely been worthwhile.
If the Lakers lose, and lose a lot, without Bryant over the next 20 games, there is a pocket of fans who believe that’s just fine. The Lakers have their first-round pick, and losing increases the team’s chances for a higher draft slot in June—with possibly six near-sure things available.
Some long-view logic to losing is undeniable, except there’s so much uncertainty when it comes to even near-sure things at that age. And seeing the team stagger through this season unquestionably hurts the brand that the Lakers intend to use to attract stars from the 2014, ’15 and ’16 free-agent markets to race back to the top.
Getting back up there, especially in a new NBA world where Sacramento has been relocated to the same plane as L.A., is tough stuff. That’s part of why the Lakers settled for signing Bryant to that two-year extension. There are no easy answers.
The Lakers are just doing the best they can, in business and basketball. More days going by now without Bryant—including Christmas at home against the mighty Miami Heat—make the Lakers’ whole recent slide that much more depressing.