If and when there is an NBA season this year, the Los Angeles Lakers are going to have their hands full. The Western Conference is getting stronger every year with emerging teams like the Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder. Of course, there are also the teams who battle every year like the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks
The Lakers found out in last year's playoffs that the West isn't going to be a cakewalk anymore. Many fans blamed the heartbroken Pau Gasol or the inconsistent Ron Artest (Metta World Peace) and Lamar Odom for the sweep. They have every reason to be blamed.
But what about Kobe Bryant?
In the last two games against Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals, when the Lakers needed their star the most, Kobe scored 17 points in Games 3 and 4, while also turning the ball over four times in the final game of the series.
Many fans want to ignore that and just blame the rest of the squad because it's difficult to blame the legend.
However, if the Lakers don't win the championship this coming year, he must take a brunt of the blame.
This isn't 2006 and 2007, when Kobe had absolutely no help on his team. He has plenty of help surrounding him now. It may be true that his teammates have been useless at times, especially in this past year's playoffs, but those are the moments when Kobe needs to take over the game.
After watching him play this year, it seems he wasn't able to do that anymore, and this may be his body telling the world that it's on the decline.
If the Lakers don't win it this year, would it be fair to say that Kobe is getting old?
It depends on his performance.
He needs to step up when the rest of the team is quiet. It's easier to ask Kobe to put up a big game than it is to ask Metta World Peace to take over a game.
Kobe lost his flair for the dramatic in 2010-11. After nailing six buzzer-beaters in 2009-10, Kobe's bailouts suddenly ended, most notably during Game 1 in the Dallas series, when his game-winning shot attempt went in and out, causing heartbreak for the Staples faithful.
Finally, it's important to note that Kobe's competitive fire will never die, no matter how old he is. But he is human. He may be only 33, but he's already played over 40,000 minutes in his career. He's played the fourth-most minutes among active players behind Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
He has also suffered numerous injuries in the past several years. From his finger, which seems like it's been taped since the Bush administration, to his knees, back and ankle, Kobe's hurt pretty much every part of his body.
This doesn't mean he can't win the title.
It just means that if the Lakers don't win, the organization needs to address the issue of Kobe's age and look to initiate a trade for a Dwight Howard or Chris Paul to get younger in order to rebuild the team for the future.