LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant would later muster up a little optimism, donning a pointed purple party hat at home as the clock ticked toward 2014.
Bryant spent the bulk of New Year’s Eve, however, with chin tucked firmly in hand at the end of the bench in Staples Center, glumly watching the Los Angeles Lakers never lead and eventually lose to the team with the NBA’s worst record, the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Lakers had lost to two of the NBA’s other worst teams, the Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers, right before that in this slide of six losses in seven games since Bryant was diagnosed with his knee fracture.
As Bryant headed out of Staples on New Year’s Eve, he crossed paths with Lakers sideline reporter Mike Trudell and me.
Bryant wasn’t smiling.
He did look over and muster up the sentiment, still without smiling: “Happy New Year to you fellas.”
Twenty strides later, Trudell and I crossed paths with Steve Nash, similarly on his way out of the somber Lakers' postgame locker room. Nash wore the friendly but jaw-clenched-tight smile that we see more and more often from him in place of the warm comfort and radiating confidence from throughout his career.
"That’s the story of the season right there," Trudell said after Nash had gone the other way. "Two of the greatest guards in NBA history walking by in street clothes, powerless to help on the court."
Bryant and Nash, whose work ethics and drives far transcend those of even other superstars, came into the season more motivated than normal to succeed after injuries undermined what was supposed to be a championship-caliber 2012-13 season.
Instead, more injuries. More street clothes.
The new years lately have been less happy than the old years, when Bryant and Nash generated points with ease for their teams. The Lakers now are struggling badly to score without them, without sore-elbowed Steve Blake and now again without Jordan Farmar after he suffered a new hamstring tear Tuesday night and is out at least four weeks.
The backbone of Mike D'Antoni's teams is supposed to be feel-good, positive energy that comes from scoring quickly and easily. The Lakers were initially able to get that done for a while without Bryant and Nash, but it has now become difficult.
Pau Gasol's sitting out with an upper respiratory illness certainly didn’t help.
Gasol came back Tuesday night and tried to implore the team to get re-energized with loud words in the pregame huddle—and the Lakers responded by falling behind, 21-4, before Gasol was subbed out.
The game was proof the Lakers are starting to feel sorry for themselves instead of believing they’re underdogs who can beat the odds. They’re starting to accept their individual limitations instead of banding together.
That’s why they keep coming out flat lately and trudging through losses that prompt more talk of tanking themselves than taking it to their opponents.
Gasol still managed 25 points, proof of how he can contribute even when not feeling well, but it was a hollow total. Gasol talked afterward about the team needing to figure out some things "so it’s not just so hard."
Even D’Antoni, who prefers the purity of coaching underdog spirits to the management of handling star egos, is suffering with the malaise.
"Just gotta get a couple breaks," D’Antoni said.
Amid all this depression, with more of Kendall Marshall and Ryan Kelly in the offing instead of Bryant and Nash, the question becomes whether the Lakers can still make this a feel-good season.
By preseason definition, a feel-good season would’ve been refreshing chemistry and teamwork, redemption for Bryant and Nash and making the playoffs with a crew of mostly low-paid castoffs.
It seemed possible early on with that chemistry and teamwork in place, but joie de vivre has been replaced by realistic concern that the Lakers’ record could be irrevocably bad by the time Bryant returns in about a month.
The Lakers have dropped to 13-19. And 10 of the Lakers’ 13 games until Bryant’s projected return date are road games. Nash remains uncertain if the nerve issues leaving his left leg so undependable will truly abate later this season—or ever.
If the Lakers are far out of the playoff picture by the time Bryant’s bone has healed or Nash is ready to give it another go, the awkward reality is that the franchise could be better off if Bryant and Nash don’t energize the team, better off if they don’t even play again this season.
If there is no playoff-appearance payoff and dream scenario of stunning the longtime rival San Antonio Spurs or shocking Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets in the first round, is it worthwhile on its own to see Bryant and Nash fight their way back to a satisfying level?
Man, it really should be.
That takes us back to the tanking template, which the NBA needs to address with a new system going forward that doesn’t reward losers so much. Now that the collective bargaining agreement and revenue sharing have leveled the NBA’s playing field, the final step is to discourage the widespread concept that teams must go overboard into the negative to reach the positive.
There are almost never any guarantees when it comes to the draft, even in a class as stocked as this upcoming one. The kids remain kids, with all the developmental uncertainties that come with youth. But it is nevertheless beyond time for the NBA to shift away from what has become tear-it-down pressure instead of a proper build-it-up business model.
We’re talking about Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash. No. 4 all-time in points and No. 4 all-time in assists.
Lakers’ present and future results aside, all sports fans should be looking forward to seeing these legends show their love for and magic within the game again. Them performing well would refill not only their hearts, but ours, too.
But, no. Somehow it is starting to seem a better sell to Lakers fans not to see Bryant and Nash play again.
The hope of some kid they’ve never seen before becoming a future Laker is more important than what inspiration—and success—Bryant and Nash and the underdogs might provide in the now. Nick Young, who has become the Lakers’ light source in every way, is showing too much growth in his game, so let’s make sure we put a stop to that, too.
There’s something wrong.
“Two of the greatest guards in NBA history walking by in street clothes, powerless to help on the court...” And it’s a good thing?!
This can’t be the story of the NBA for 2014 and beyond.
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