At the start of NBA training camps earlier this month, Kobe Bryant told all who would listen (including Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports) that this year's Los Angeles Lakers squad would be the most enticing collection of talent with which he'd ever played:
"On its face, it’s the best talent I’ve been around. Whether that translates into winning a championship remains to be seen. But just on paper you’re talking Defensive Player of the Years, MVPs, All-Stars. You’re talking about a myriad of things. Guys who are at the top of their position at one point or another. It’s pretty dope."
Much was already expected of this group after GM Mitch Kupchak snagged Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in a month-and-a-half apan this past summer. Kobe's comments only intensified the pressure under which they'll all play in LA.
Thanks to Bryant, who's eying another zenith—equaling (and later, perhaps, topping) Michael Jordan's six rings—to cap off a career replete with peaks and valleys.
Speaking of which, the Black Mamba looked back less than fondly on one such valley—the 2005-06 season—prior to the Lakers' 93-75 exhibition loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday.
When asked by the attendant media about teaming up with Nash, his long-time rival with the Phoenix Suns, Bryant admitted he was still irked about the fact that his new backcourt buddy was named the NBA MVP that season, despite the fact that Kobe led the league in scoring and carried a cast of scrubs, including Smush Parker and Kwame Brown, to 45 wins and a playoff berth.
At which point, according to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Times, the Mamba ripped into his old teammates, venomous fangs and all:
"I tell Steve, you won MVP but I was playing with Smush Parker. He's playing with [Leandro] Barbosa. I'm playing with Smush and Kwame [Brown]. My goodness."
It didn't take long for the questions to open up the floodgates for No. 24:
"Smush Parker was the worst. He shouldn't have been in the NBA, but we were too cheap to pay for a point guard. We let him walk on.
“Smush Parker, with Tierre Brown as the backup. I’m taking 45 shots a game. What was I supposed to do, pass the ball in to Chris Mihm? Chris Mihm?”
Actually, Kobe took 27.2 shots a game that year, but who's counting?
To be sure, Kobe's feud with William "Smush" Parker is nothing new. Those two didn't get along particularly well during their days together in LA, even though Smush—with his 11.5 points, 3.7 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 36.6 percent shooting from three—wasn't even the worst of the dregs who populated the Lakers' roster that year (I'm looking at you, Kwame/Devean George/Luke Walton). They were known to clash, at least in part because of Parker's purported lack of commitment to the game.
Kobe had never previously discussed his differences with Smush as publicly as he did on Wednesday. Parker, on the other hand, has been anything but shy to criticize the Mamba:
As if anyone actually cares about what Smush Parker has to say.
But beyond the snicker-filled sniping and petty name-calling, the fact that Smush's name has resurfaced serves as a point of comparison between where Kobe and the Lakers were seven years ago, where they are now and how remarkable the journey in between has been.
Strange as it may seem, the cabal of the 2005-06 season set the stage for the remarkable success that the Purple and Gold have enjoyed of late. That was Year 2 A.D. (After Diesel) for the Lakers, when Lamar Odom was second-in-command, Kwame and Smush were playing big minutes and the All-Star Game was but a twinkle in rookie Andrew Bynum's wayward eye.
With Phil Jackson back on the bench, Kobe dragged these Lakers into the playoffs, where they were ousted by Nash's Suns in a stunning seven-game series, during which Phoenix fought back from a 3-1 deficit. A second early exit at Nash's hands the very next season nearly sent Kobe off the deep end in search of a new home before calling on Lakers management to make a significant move, preferably (in his mind) one involving Bynum and Jason Kidd.
By that time, Smush was gone, having been replaced by Derek Fisher, Kobe's long-time running mate. Soon enough, Kwame was out the door, too, in a miraculous midseason deal for Pau Gasol, who filled in beautifully for an injured Andrew Bynum. Who, in turn, had begun to show the considerable promise for which the Lakers made him the 10th pick in the 2005 draft.
Three Finals appearances, two titles and two early playoff exits later, the Lakers were back at the drawing board, looking all too ready to slip back into the sort of mediocrity they endured with Smush at the point.
Then, Mitch dipped back into his bag of magic tricks and turned Andrew Bynum, a trade exception (acquired in exchange for Lamar Odom last December), some spare parts and a heap of draft picks into Nash and Howard.
Which brings the Lakers to where they are today. At 34, Kobe isn't quite the player he was back in 2005-06, but neither is the roster around him.
For the better, of course.
Seven years ago, the Lakers' starting lineup looked something like this:
- PG: Smush Parker
- SG: Kobe Bryant
- SF: Lamar Odom
- PF: Brian Cook
- C: Kwame Brown/Chris Mihm
Now, it looks like this:
- PG: Steve Nash
- SG: Kobe Bryant
- SF: Metta World Peace
- PF: Pau Gasol
- C: Dwight Howard
For those keeping score at home, that's four "scrubs" (Kwame, Mihm, Cook and Smush) and a solid rotation player (Odom) replaced by four All-Stars, two of whom (Nash and Howard) are likely to wind up in the Hall of Fame.
Clearly, the Lakers have come a long way since then, not once but twice. No wonder Kobe's so giddy about the present.
And so willing to poke fun at the past.