For the past six months, the sacrificial lambs have been slaughtering the butcher.
I apologize that I just recycled an old gem from Sports Illustrated, but the sentence seems more than appropriate right now.
The Miami Heat’s epic winning streak will most likely be what people remember from this NBA season fifty years later, but the most surprising event of the season is the crashing and burning of the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers, fresh off the acquisitions of superstars Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. I don’t want to go into the gory details, but before the season, many people (not me) were talking about breaking the ’96 Bulls’ record of 72 wins and suffice to say that the Los Angeles Lakers have had them eating crow for the past six months.
In fact, the Lakers are in danger of missing the playoffs for only the sixth time in their 65 years of existence, and, as it stands, need to win their final game of the season just to sneak into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed, where they would await something resembling a Quentin Tarantino blood fantasy at the hands of the Thunder.
I’m actually writing this before the season finale against Houston; there’s no need to spoil the story — they’ll play today at 7:30 p.m., if you’re interested. Either way, the song remains mostly the same. The Lakers have almost no hope of playoff victory, but they are fighting nevertheless because of their admirable pride and because the terms of the Steve Nash trade mean that if the Lakers miss the playoffs altogether, their first-round draft pick goes to Phoenix.
To better illustrate the point, the Lakers were swept by the Clippers, a basketball “franchise” [sic] with no history, no money and almost no appreciable fan base until last year. (And one that would still be fairly mediocre if the NBA had not previously blocked the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers.)
In fact, the last on-paper super-team to disappoint this badly was the 2003-04 Lakers, and they made the NBA Finals. I suppose that that only goes to show how spoiled Lakers fans are, but to tell the truth, when you have as many institutional advantages as the Lakers do, anything short of a championship every year is a bit disappointing.
Of course, crashing and burning always has a reason, and the Lakers’ primary boogeyman has been injuries. The team have played approximately five games at full strength, and to add insult to injury, Kobe Bryant just ripped his Achilles tendon and will be lucky to be able to play at the start of next season — if he ever makes back.
For Kobe, the only constant throughout my lifetime as a sports fan, this season absolutely should not have ended this way. This was meant to be his coronation; it ended up with him mirroring his years in the wilderness, when he dragged a barren Lakers squad to the playoffs two years out of three.
Playing with a brutal workload — 45 minutes a game by the end of the season — Kobe wore down, reminding us all that he is not the player he used to be. This last epiphany was something we all ought to have known — and indeed somewhere along the road of my fandom I acknowledged that LeBron James is the superior player — but Friday night was the first time I ever really had to come to terms with it.
Kobe Bryant may never play again; more shockingly, he is getting old. (Old for a basketball player, that is — another way in which sports can be disorienting.)
I have probably spent more time shouting at Kobe on the TV than I have cheering for him. There are a number of things I intensely dislike about Kobe’s game — constantly calling isolation plays for himself, his general disinterest in playing defense (and how he was picked year after year for the All-Defense team, I’ll never know), his lack of passing and his willingness to take the sort of shots that my coach benched me for in high school.
Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals was the perfect Kobe Bryant game — 6-for-24 from the field, countless bad decisions, countless moments of unthinkable brilliance and eventually the victory.
However, this last season was bizarre; Kobe was constantly adjusting his style to the Lakers’ personnel and even averaged ten assists a game for a good stretch of the season. As star after star went down, he remained the sole constant through the entire year. Without Kobe Bryant, the Lakers would be a 35-win team.
But now he is gone — at least for the time being — the Lakers are on the verge of missing out on the playoffs for the first time since 2005. For a fan who’s as accustomed to success as I am, the world now looks completely different.
Winston Shi is still exasperated that his high school coach never recognized his inner Kobe. Applaud his lack of passing or defense and encourage him to throw his name into the NBA Draft at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.