Lakers' world begins, ends with Kobe
As long as its franchise player is out, Los Angeles will be different kind of team
To this day, Jordan Farmar is not entirely sure the call really happened. It was early, and he was still emotionally spent from the excitement of the day before. The Los Angeles Lakers, the team he'd grown up rooting for as a boy in the San Fernando Valley, had made him the 26th pick of the 2006 NBA draft, and now, first thing the next morning, his phone was ringing and Kobe Bryant was on the other line?
"I thought I was dreaming still, to be honest with you," Farmar said. "I woke up early in the morning, the phone rang and he's like, 'What's up man? It's Kobe. Welcome to the Lakers. Are you ready to get to work?'"
As introductions go, it was about as straightforward as they come. Had he been fully awake and alert, everything Farmar needed to know about playing with Bryant and the Lakers was embedded within that early-morning phone call.
It has been a volatile universe, to be sure, but in a strange way, it has also been remarkably predictable. The Lakers have gone as Bryant has. His reality has been their reality. Up and down, for better or for worse, his life has been theirs. The sun rose in Lakerland when Bryant did, and it set when he closed his eyes.
He welcomed players to the team, then tested them.
"He'll push your buttons," Farmar said. "Just to see how you're going to respond. He wants to see if you're going to back down from the fight."
It's how it's been for so long, hardly anyone besides Bryant can remember any other way.
But in the time and space it took for Bryant to fracture the top of his left tibia last week, the Lakers seem to have entered a new dimension, one in which Bryant's presence feels peripheral, not central. And like the early-morning phone call Farmar got after draft day, it's hard to believe it's real.
When the Lakers play the Miami Heat on Wednesday afternoon, it will be the first Christmas Day game they have played without Bryant since 1991. That Christmas Day game against the Los Angeles Clippers feels like eons ago. Magic Johnson had abruptly retired after testing positive for HIV just six weeks earlier. The whole world was still digesting what that meant.
It took five years for the Lakers to rebuild after Johnson retired and eight years to win another championship. A mild winter for most NBA franchises, but an ice age for the Lakers.
The Lakers pass torches, not time, between superstars. One era leads into the next. Handoffs are choreographed years in advance.
The Lakers' initial succession plan with Bryant was undone by the failed trade for point guard Chris Paul, then by the failed experiment with Dwight Howard. After that, the plan became for him to carry the franchise another couple of seasons until they could hatch a new plan.
Bryant was both willing and able until his knee extended a bit too far the other night in Memphis, Tenn.
Now what is it?
Bryant's future is as unclear as the Lakers'. As usual, they are linked. Will he ever be the same kind of player? Will they ever be the same kind of franchise?
Can he still win championships with the Lakers? Can they still win championships with him?
All that remains unsettled.
"All I can do is do the work," Bryant confided on Thursday, after learning he'd be out another six weeks with this latest injury. "And do everything I can to be back at the highest level."
It is the same message he repeated over and over to himself as he worked his way back from a ruptured Achilles. Focus on the process, not the pain. Trust the plan. Do the work. Take pride in the details, not the destination.
For all the glory Bryant has enjoyed in his NBA career, it's the grind he's put himself through that gives him the most pride. Rehabilitating from his Achilles injury quickly became just another challenge to overcome. And he was doing it, too. His game was coming back -- the pull-up jumpers, the fadeaways, the explosiveness in his legs …
Now, he has to do it all over again.
You had to figure the Lakers would play either the Heat or the Rockets on Christmas Day this year. The Rockets, if the NBA focused in on the revenge narrative with Howard. The Heat, if the league wanted to take another go at creating a rivalry between Bryant and LeBron James.
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That the Lakers would again be featured in the marquee game on Christmas, against the two-time defending champions, is a testament to the strength of their brand.
But what is it now?
The Lakers aren't the same draw without Bryant. The Lakers aren't a lot of things without Bryant.
Yes, they have a better record without him this season than with him. They play easier and looser and seem to have a lot more fun when things don't revolve around him.
But that doesn't mean they're better. The sample size was far too small to draw that conclusion yet.
"His experience, his talent, his leadership: That's why we're better with one of the best players in the world," Lakers center Pau Gasol said.
They're also less talented, less interesting and less compelling without him.
Honestly, it's hard to say what the Lakers actually are without Bryant. What's their identity? What's their brand?
Mike D'Antoni has a way of saying exactly what he feels even when he's trying not to say much at all. He can't help it. He believes what he believes about the game of basketball, and when his team starts believing in the same things, the spirit gets a hold of him.
You should've seen him the other night talking about reserve guard Nick Young, who has reinvented himself with the Lakers this season. His postgame news conference after the Lakers beat the Minnesota Timberwolves felt like a church revival.
"He rubs off on me. He makes me happy," D'Antoni said. "When we have a shootaround and the energy is down, he's swaggy out there. He feels it and he starts swaggin' or something, and he gets everybody's energy up. It's not a silly energy. It's a good positive, fun [energy]."
Energy. You hear D'Antoni talk about it all the time. It's what he believes in. The ball finds energy when you share it willingly. It matters less who shoots than what type of shots you take.
It is a decidedly egalitarian view of basketball, one that's helped dozens of players over the years to expand their games and have a career season. It's also noticeably flopped when presented to superstars like Carmelo Anthony and Howard.
The jury was still out on its effectiveness for Bryant and Gasol. They were still adapting to D'Antoni's vision for the team, and he was still adapting to their skill sets.
When the starters were in, the offense would be more of a two-man game with Bryant and Gasol, with everybody else staying ready to shoot and facilitate. The reserves would play the up-tempo, energetic style D'Antoni preferred.
He accepted it but never seemed to embrace it.
"We don't have a whole lot of rhythm out there," D'Antoni said after the win in Memphis. "But right now, we've just got to get as many wins as we can."
He wasn't happy when he said it. He's also been through too much since taking the Lakers job last November to dwell on anything other than wins and losses.
Not everyone was going to see the game like he did. His halcyon days in Phoenix might have to remain as an ideal. To endlessly try and recreate them would be self-indulgent at this point.
And besides, he never did get to coach Steve Nash again.
The real Steve Nash, that is. The one from the Phoenix Suns who ran D'Antoni's offense like he created it, the guy the Lakers thought they were getting in the summer of 2012 when they traded four future draft picks to the Suns and gave him a three-year, $27.9 million contract.
But Nash hasn't been Nash for a long while now. Not since the second game of last season, when the Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lilliard crashed into his leg and set off a devastating chain reaction through Nash's body that's robbed him of his explosion, stamina and athleticism.
There was a point when Nash was fighting to make it all the way back, too, but it's been so long since he felt even close to right, Nash is holding onto whatever he can these days.
"I just want to play. That's what gets me through every day," Nash said after he was ruled out for at least four more weeks. "I want to play, I still love to play and I still feel like I have the skills to do it.
"I'd like to finish my career on a positive note. I'm just fighting every day to get that little bit of joy from playing basketball and being one of the guys, running up and down the court and trying to beat somebody."
Like Bryant, Nash keeps himself in impeccable shape. He is competitive about everything -- stubborn, headstrong and ruthlessly defiant to those who question his will.
There are those who think both of them need to start compromising those ideals. Father Time is undefeated, yada, yada.
In his own way, Nash has begun to. He simply wants to go out on his own terms now, have one last good run with the fellas, squeeze a little more joy out of the game before it's over.
"I'd love to repay the fans and have a great stretch here before it's over for me," he said.
Nash and Bryant have grown close in their year and a half as teammates. Last season, they strategized endlessly on how to get Howard to buy in. This season, they've mostly just commiserated on their awful luck.
It hasn't been what either of them expected or hoped for, but it's been easier to go through together.
There are two key differences. Nash is older and played the majority of his career with Phoenix. He has no equity built up with the fans in Los Angeles. They have no loyalty to him or incentive to wait on him like they do with Bryant.
And so we're back to the beginning: with the Lakers' world beginning and ending with Bryant.
While he is injured, they will be something else, a different kind of team with different expectations, goals and values. It will play a different way with a different type of energy, style and substance.
It's hard to say just what that means yet -- for Bryant, for the Lakers or for the NBA. It's not real yet. He'll be back soon enough.