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How the Lakers fell from contention to ruin during Kobe Bryant’s final seasons

November 9, 2019


– [Narrator] Five years after he lost his championship co-star,
Kobe Bryant silenced doubters by winning it all without Shaq, Twice. Kobe earned his first Finals MVP in 2009, as the Lakers took down Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic in five games. That was also Coach Phil
Jackson’s 10th championship, pushing him ahead of
Red Auerbach’s record. And while Kobe had become
LA’s undisputed star, he did have a strong
veteran supporting cast. Built by GM Mitch Kupchak, Clever Spanish big man Pau
Gasol, stout point guard Derek Fisher and the savvy
adaptable Lamar Odom. That cast only improved
following the O9′ championship. Young center Andrew Bynum
still had knee problems, but had better luck fighting through them. And newcomer Ron Artest
provided the boost LA needed to roll back to the finals in 2010. And exact revenge against
the Boston Celtics who had beaten them in 08′. Now with two Finals MVP
trophies to go with his two Shaq-less championship trophies, Kobe’s on court legacy was
secure but not necessarily done. Bryant had just signed an extension to stay in purple and
gold well into his 30s. What would that final chapter of his glorious career look like? Would he find continued
success with the same group? Would he recruit stars
to form a new super team? Would he bring LA even
more championship banners before saying goodbye? Well. After a title repeat, the
first order of business was Phil Jackson’s future. The 65 year old coach had pondered going back into retirement, but decided to stick
around one more season because a prophecy told him that was the right thing to do. Cool. The second order of
business was Kobe’s health. Bryant had been bothered by
soreness in his shooting hand and in his surgically repaired
right knee all season. And in July, he got another
operation on the knee. The championship hangover was real. Kobe rarely practiced with the team, in an attempt to preserve his knee. Gasol felt the weight of big minutes, and Odom was extra fatigued
because of a summer spent with Team USA. This all bred frustration,
which boiled over at times, like when the Lakers suffered
an embarrassing Christmas Day loss to the Heat, and Kobe
called out his teammates. Nevertheless, LA won 57 games. Same as the prior season, and marched into the playoffs a two seed. They handled their business
in the first round, eliminating New Orleans in what would be Chris Paul’s final games as a hornet. The second round didn’t go so hot. The Lakers blew leads
in games one and three against the Mavericks, and
got blown out in game four. The closest they came
to putting up a fight was occasionally attacking JJ Barea. Despite ending the season
with a playoff sweep, the first of his coaching
career, Phil followed through on his promise to retire. In retiring, Jackson shed some light on LA’s unique front office. The man who’d been a Lakers
fixture for most of the decade, said he had minimal
relationship with management and didn’t expect them to
consult him going forward. Jackson was not referring
to Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak. He was talking about
members of the Buss family, longtime franchise owner
Jerry Buss and his children, several of whom had
significant executive roles. Jim Buss was in charge
of basketball operations. Jeanie Buss was in charge
of the business side and to add another wrinkle
was Phil’s girlfriend. So Yeah, these people who
each felt very differently about the departing
extremely successful coach now had to replace him. Kobe had expressed
approval for longtime Jackson assistant Brian Shaw, but Kupchak and the Busses made a point of not consulting players on the decision. They passed over all
the in house candidates for a newcomer, Mike Brown. The coach who’d worn out his welcome with LeBron and the Cavs. Kobe maybe wasn’t thrilled with that hire, but he had to be excited when following the 2011 NBA lockout, the Lakers agreed to a monumental trade, Kobe would lose his best two co stars with Gasol going to the Rockets
and Odom to the Hornets. But he’d gain the best young
point guard in the NBA, and probably his best co
star since Shaq, Chris Paul, Just one problem. The NBA technically had control
of the Hornets franchise and after lots of
whining from other teams, Commissioner David Stern vetoed the trade for what he called basketball reasons. While Paul ended up in
a different LA jersey, the Lakers had to figure out how to handle two important players,
who were now pretty bummed that their employer
had tried to dump them. Odom was upset enough that LA
considered the bridge burned and hurried to find a new home for him. They traded the reigning sixth
Man of the Year to Dallas for just a protected
first round draft pick. Despite losing Odom LA’s
first season under Mike Brown was pretty uneventful on the court. Kobe, Pau, and Bynum all played well, The Lakers made the
playoffs as a three seed, and won a tough first
round against the Nuggets. But they once again
fell in the second round to the eventual Western champ. This time it was the
mighty OKC Thunder. Perhaps more important long
term was LA’s work off the court like at the 2012 trade deadline. They didn’t like their
point guard situation after the Paul trade fell through, So they sent Fisher and the
first round draft pick away for big man Jordan Hill,
then traded more picks to bring in promising young
point guard Ramon Sessions. Sessions wasn’t that good in LA and he left in free agency that summer. So that was a bunch of
assets including multiple first round draft picks
dealt for very little. This was the same season
in which Lakers management came under fire from Kobe
for their treatment of Gasol. They came under further
fire for Jim Buss’s wild careless shuffling of
the staff around Kupchak, his attempts to completely scrub the team of Phil’s fingerprints. And remember that was
his sister’s boyfriend. CBS’s Ken Berger called the Lakers “a steaming pool of
nepotism and nincompoops.” Well, the steaming pool was about to have a pretty big summer. In July, the Lakers acquired
aging star point guard, Steve Nash, losing a few more
draft picks in the process. In August, a long rumored
move finally went down. A massive 4-team trade
that, among other things, sent Bynum to Philadelphia
and brought the Lakers Dwight Howard, a superstar
center with an expiring contract. Forget the future, with
a 38 year old point guard and a soon to be free agent center, The Lakers were going for it immediately. Basketball experts were thrilled. And SI put LA on their season preview cover, promising fun. Well, Howard missed a
lot of camp and preseason recovering from back
surgery, that’s not fun. The brittle Nash fractured
his leg in his second game, not fun, Brown’s attempts at
installing a Princeton offense were eclipsed by how
badly the Lakers defended to open the season. Jim Buss wondered aloud if
Brown’s system was flawed, and fired him after just five games, necessitating a hasty
mid season hire, not fun. Jeanie Buss assumed the Lakers
would bring her pal Phil out of retirement, but Jim
stunned and, in her eyes, betrayed Jeannie by going
with another star coach, LA’s former rival, Mike D’Antoni. without the benefit of a
training camp to get familiar, D’Antoni struggled to run
his own system on the fly. Players missed time with
injuries, egos clashed, and the awkwardness of
the Howard-Gasol pairing led to Pau’s occasional benching, which only led to more egos clashing. And speaking of which friction
between the Buss children got further complicated
when their father Jerry passed away in February
2013 at the age of 80. Man, None of this fun. When the Lakers finally
began to turn it around after the all star break,
Kobe tore his Achilles tendon. LA had won enough to
slip into the playoffs, but promptly got swept by the Spurs. LA’s first opening round exit since 2007. Entering the summer with
no first round draft picks, and minimal space to build, the Lakers prepared to run it back. D’Antoni would get to coach
a season from its beginning and when Kobe got healthy,
maybe the Lakers could coalesce and improve internally. One issue, Howard was a free agent, and he hadn’t exactly loved his season with D’Antoni and Kobe. The Lakers could offer Dwight more money than anyone else could,
and did what they could to woo him back, but Howard bailed, signing with the Houston Rockets. The Lakers knew they were boned. LA legend Magic Johnson,
communicating via Bill Simmons’ Twitter account for some reason, was already looking ahead
to the summer of 2014, when they’d have some cap space, LA waived their 2010
finals hero who’d since changed his name to Metta World Peace. Metta responded as only Metta can. The Lakers made some minor
signings, Swaggy P among them, and otherwise buckled down
for a season that started okay but got super rough when
Kobe messed up his knee like a week after returning
from the Achilles stuff. That injury and many more
sunk LA to 27 and 55, their worst record yet. Those 27 wins included a
game in which the Lakers were so depleted by
injuries, that Chris Kaman had enough room to treat
the bench like a bed. The 55 losses included a 48
point defeat to the Clippers who, with Paul, had taken
over as LA’s superior team. It was a year long
embarrassment, and crucially, D’Antoni and Gasol still didn’t get along. In the offseason, both of them left. Besides falling into a lottery pick. The primary lasting impact of
that dismal 2013, 2014 season was that despite his declining
health and inclining age, the last player standing
from those championship teams would be a significant part of the future. Weeks before his season
ending knee injury, Kobe had signed a two
year contract extension. The Buss family once again felt pressure to build quickly around
their aging legend. Pressure only complicated by the fact that Jeannie had taken a bigger
role since her father’s death and had publicly expressed
her displeasure with Jim. Jim knew that he and the GM, Kupchak, needed to turn things around, and he publicly raised the
stakes of not doing so. He said if he didn’t bring
the Lakers back to contention in the next three or
four years, he’d leave. So, onward, with their 7th
pick in the 2014 draft, the Lakers snagged burly, versatile, Kentucky forward, Julius Randle. With that cap space Magic
had been so excited about, the Lakers pursued a number of big names. Here was the best chance
for Buss and Kupchak to fix the Lakers fast. They wanted free agent LeBron James, but he chose to return home to Cleveland. They wanted to trade for Kevin Love, but he ended up with LeBron. They met with free agent Carmelo Anthony, but he eventually decided
to return to the Knicks. So The Lakers did what they
could in the open market, making Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer their foremost offseason acquisitions. They hired former Laker
Byron Scott to coach the team and enter the season
with a roster of Kobe, whatever remained of Nash,
a potential future star in Randle, and a bunch
of weirdos and youngsters. Then Randle broke his leg
and his first ever NBA game. Then a struggling Kobe
needed shoulder surgery. Then Nash who hadn’t
played all season retired, Scott’s Lakers started the season losing, and never looked back. They outdid the prior years record with a franchise worst 61 losses. So it would be another
offseason with a lottery pick, which LA used on Ohio State
point guard D’Angelo Russel. And once again, the Lakers
aspired to add some big names. LA badly wanted a new front
court of Lamarcus Aldridge, and DeAndre Jordan, however difficult that might be to assemble. They brought out the big
guns to recruit Aldridge. Yes, that’s Adam Levine wearing
a backward custom jersey. But Aldridge really just
wanted to play for a winner, and the Lakers weren’t that, not anymore. Jordan had his own whole thing going on, but suffice it to say he
didn’t join the Lakers. Once again, LA had to
scramble for alternatives and ended up with an
offseason haul of Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams and Brandon Bass. Yet again, Byron Scott
was left to coach a roster of old Kobe, young newcomers
and a bunch of weirdos. Yet again, it went
terribly, And this time, after a two and 13 start, Kobe announced he wasn’t going to extend
his contract again. It was time to retire. That 2015-2016 season would produce Kobe’s preposterous final
game, and in spite of that, yet another rock bottom record
for the Lakers, 17 and 65. Kobe’s farewell meant one important thing. The Lakers didn’t have to mess around with ambitious short term pursuits anymore, They could rebuild for real. Losing, and youth, and space
begat more losing, and youth, and space, which begat
after years of failing to attract stars a
couple of huge additions. None of that, however, happened quickly or convincingly enough
to make people forget the promise Jim buss had made in 2014 to make the Lakers a
contender just a few years. Jeanie certainly didn’t
forget, and in 2017, she fired Kupchak,
accepted the resignation of her older brother, and moved forward with a management group of
Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, before that too fell apart. The group of people hoping
to lead LA out of the lottery has minimal overlap
with the group of people who got them there in the first place. So, what happened to the Lakers
during Kobe’s final chapter? Well, first, the West caught up to them. They wisely tried to trade
their old championship core for a new one, but that got shot down in a way that generated hurt
feelings and desperate moves. And while Kobe stuck around,
his health deteriorated, and a very messy front
office whiffed on attempts to attract sidekicks for him. Kobe’s departure didn’t
fix that messiness, but it did allow for an organic rebuild, which allowed for a dramatic one. The time in between was pretty grim. But the first peak was
probably worth the valley and Lakers fans hope more peaks lie ahead.

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