Kobe Bryant, Lakers' Championship Chase Could Get Ugly for Rest of NBA

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IJune 22, 2010

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 21:  Los Angeles Lakers point guard Derek Fisher hoists the championship trophy while riding in the victory parade for the the NBA basketball champion team on June 21, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers beat the Boston Celtics 87-79 in 7 games for the franchise's 16 NBA title.   (Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images)
Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

The reasons why the Los Angeles Lakers would not repeat flew off the sports editorial runway like planes at LAX.

Ron Artest was too crazy. He took so many "what the hell were you thinking" shots that it was clear he wasn't thinking.

Artest would shoot the squad into the abyss. He connected on a paltry 30 percent of his field goal attempts for most of the postseason.

Andrew Bynum was too banged up to make a difference. Medical staffers drained his knee twice in the NBA Finals alone. Some wondered if head coach Phil Jackson needed to shut him down. Some thought Bynum should have cancelled his comeback to undergo the necessary knee operation in March.

One of Kobe Bryant's ailing body parts would fail him. He dealt with ankle sprains, a hip flexor, a groin strain, the flu, and the wear and tear of 14 NBA seasons.

A physical frontline presence on some team would overpower Pau Gasol. The Phoenix Suns limited his effectiveness in two games with extended use of a zone defense, the Oklahoma City Thunder's leaping bigs swatted more of his looks than anyone else did, and the Boston Celtics' bigs, Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Garnett, and Rasheed Wallace, bumped and banged him until his glitzy field goal percentage nosedived into the 40s.

Russell Westbrook would torch Derek Fisher and embarrass him into retirement. Deron Williams would do the same. Ditto for Steve Nash. Ditto for Rajon Rondo or Ray Allen. Yeah, he's heard that before.

The critics could have made a worthy argument when Fisher was shooting in the low 30s in one of the worst campaigns of his career. My B/R colleague, Andrew Ungvari, said in a midseason column that when Fisher fired a triple, he would look to see which Laker would be there to grab the miss.

Lamar Odom was lucky. Thanks for that one, Amar'e Stoudemire. Lucky in the first two rounds? No. Not very good? Yes. His highest scoring output in the second round joust with the Jazz was 12 points. Even in parts of the Finals, he played like a neglected, lost baby, screaming for the comfort of his parents. He just kept screaming.

The reserves were too inconsistent. Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, and Luke Walton would cause the Lakers to lose. Farmar remains a mistake waiting for a place to happen, Vujacic could not regain the deft perimeter touch he displayed in the 2008 playoffs, and Walton fought injuries that limited his playing time and effectiveness.

Gasol missed 20 games or so, Bryant agreed to sit out three games in a row to let his aches and pains heal, Fisher and Artest were so lights out from beyond the arc that Staples Center officials had to replace the lights in the rafters, and the bench was there for the champs like Alec Baldwin is there for his daughter.

Many of the myriad reasons the championship train might derail proved true.

Yet, Monday afternoon, the Lakers again paraded through downtown Los Angeles, millions of purple and gold fanatics in tow, to celebrate banner No. 16. A bus carried the players down Figueroa Street and blared that damn Randy Newman song.

Not everyone loves L.A., but the rest of the league might have to get use to it. The Celtics could be heard in the background sarcastically chanting, "We love it!"

The Orlando Magic, Suns, Thunder, and everyone else in the Lakers' recent trail of destruction offered half-hearted vocal accompaniment: "We love it!"

This, folks, could get ugly. Some of us—not me—shouted that Bryant could not win a ring without Shaquille O'Neal. He'll never be Michael Jordan. He will never touch Magic Johnson, even if someone handcuffs him to the statue of the Laker legend outside the arena.

Yada, yada, yada.

Bryant, much to the chagrin of 28 other teams, wants to keep hoisting gold trophies. Only the Lawrence O'Brien one will do. Those who angered him with their doubt deluge have paid the steep price.

If the injury bug, often dreadful three-point shooting, a hobbled starting center, and an extra dose of crazy could not prevent the Lakers from a repeat performance in June, how the hell will anyone or anything stop them in 12 months?

The Celtics are not allowed to attend or cry at this pity party. Seventeen championship banners hang in the TD Garden rafters. Yeah, guys in green, shut up.

For the rest of the league, the part that doesn't matter when the league's storied franchises do battle, the misery figures to get worse.

Inconsistency became the Lakers' lethal weapon. How can you scout or prepare for them when you don't know who, outside of Bryant and Gasol, will show up to compete?

Do you play them on the night when Farmar throws the ball away five times and throws up five airballs, or do you get the misfortune of playing them on the night when he drills a pair of three-pointers and becomes a scoring catalyst?

Fisher's résumé boasts countless humongous playoff shots. His timely heroics will live in Lakers lore forever. Still, opponents had to pray they would face L.A. on a night when he could not hit the broad side of a barn. Fisher missed the barn more times than a blind farmer in a wheelchair.

What about Vujacic? He might come off the bench and heave more bricks than a construction company. Or he might bag a triple with a defender's hand two inches from his teeth to afford the squad a late first-quarter lead.

You want Odom and Artest to jack up three-pointers and long jumpers—until they somehow make the biggest one of the game.

The one roster characteristic most Lakers fans decried from October through May is what made them champions. Like the BP oil rig, when foes stopped one guy, another contributor gushed or floated to the surface.

Kevin Costner's company deals with oil rigs. Will somebody call the actor to ask if he also handles pro basketball teams from Southern California?

Crow about potential landing spots for LeBron James, speculate to no end about Chris Bosh's future, and keep dreaming about how dominant a team with both All-Stars could be.

Nothing that transpires this summer will matter if it doesn't lead to an overthrow of the Lakers.

Artest thanked his psychiatrist in a TV interview just after the Lakers won Game Seven 83-79. How many shrinks remain employed because of the wreckage Bryant and his dangerous cast has caused?

No amount of couch time or pill-popping can change the NBA's newest daunting reality. Since Gasol arrived in Hollywood via a trade from Memphis, the Lakers have won the Western Conference three times and the title twice.

Forget King James. The rest of the NBA has yet to find a way to dethrone the champs. James merely served as the opening act.

Dwight Howard served the appetizers. Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Garnett fell off the stage just before the encore. They were oh-so-close.

It's still depressing to think that observers talked about legacies on the line for a franchise with 15 titles, and two players who had secured four of them.

What about those franchises with zero titles? You know, the ones that don't know what a parade in late June feels like?

This group might prove harder to topple than the Berlin Wall. In the eyes of other championship hopefuls, it must be done. But how?

Of the key contributors, Fisher is the lone question mark. General manager Mitch Kupchak can replace reserve guards Farmar and Shannon Brown. He can use the mid-level to retain another point guard to play alongside the veteran. Fisher isn't ageless, but his ability to make big shots in pressure situations has aged well.

Kupchak locked up Gasol and Bryant through 2014 with lucrative contract extensions. Will those 28 teams have to wait until then to get in another word?

Gasol's arms won't let them score. Bryant's legendary drive won't let them breathe.

Maybe commissioner David Stern should dissolve everyone else and live out his dream of "Lakers vs. Lakers." The Celtics, if history serves, will find a way to crash the party, even if it takes another 22 or so years.

Fisher stared at Lakers radio play-by-play man Spero Dedes during Monday's parade, then eyed the throng of fans below, as if to ponder the question the way a wise man should.

"This feels great," he said, "and there's no reason why we shouldn't do this again next year."

Those 28 other teams can think of a lot of reasons. A way to stop them?

That answer continues to elude everyone, including Fisher. This, folks, could get ugly, as if twice in a row wasn't ugly enough.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.