One of my earliest memories as a Laker fan is the closeout game of the 2009 NBA Finals. Kobe Bryant drove middle right at the defensive behemoth that was Dwight Howard, only for Kobe to hang and alter his shot midair for a perfect circus shot off the glass. The bucket stretched the lead to double digits, and a quarter later, Kobe would be clutching his fourth championship in one arm and his first Finals MVP in the other.
I’m a bandwagoner — well, I was in the beginning when I first started following the Lakers.I was initially drawn in by how good the Lakers were, but I stayed for Kobe’s crazy and ill-advised fallaway jumpers that he would somehow make sometimes. The Lakers’ perennial playoff contention year-after-year accelerated and magnified my love for the NBA until it was obsession. But now, I have to deal with something I’ve never experienced before. I’m heading into this upcoming season knowing the Lakers are most likely going to be among the worst teams in the league in a stacked Western conference.
As of now, the purple and gold don’t have anything close to a full roster, so no one knows how bad they’ll actually be. But realistically, no impactful or top-tier free agents are going to want to play on a team whose biggest draw is a 35-year-old guard coming off two major surgeries.
The Lakers may have been miserable the past two seasons, but watching those teams was far different. I came into the 2012-13 season believing that Kobe could lead his team back to the promised land. And with Steve Nash, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Dwight backing him up, I thought the Lakers were a shoo-in for a trip to the Finals. And last season, I believed — nay, prayed — that Kobe would pick up where he left off, Nash would turn back the clock to 2005 and the Lakers could pull off some sort of miracle to dethrone the Heat, spurring ESPN to make a 30-for-30 documentary titled “Back to the Top.”
Now, I’ve tempered my expectations of the once-glorious Lakers. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll bleed purple and gold until I die. I’m just not one of those fans who think that the team is a title contender every year or that every big name free agent wants to come to Los Angeles just because they’re the Lakers. But somewhere along the road, I went from wanting the Lakers to win every game to wanting them to lose as many games as possible for a top draft pick like we did to get Julius Randle.
The thing about losing is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be bad. It may be me trying to cope with the fact that the Lakers suck, but I’m actually looking forward to them struggling and trying to find their way. The back-to-back championships the Lakers won five years ago hardly meant anything to me. Sure, it was exciting to see my team do well, but because I wasn’t there with them during all the highs and lows to get to that point, it was meaningless.
Kobe will always be my favorite basketball player. I regularly try to convince people that he’s a top-10 player all-time — which he’s not — just because he’s Kobe freaking Bryant. But I don’t have those memories of him ascending the NBA ladder and seeing his growth. I just got to see the finished product in all of its 30-foot fadeaway-taking glory.
Like it or not, the Lakers are in a period of transition right now. As an immature fan back in high school who tuned in to Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith whenever I could to hear arguments about whether LeBron is considered “clutch” or not, I thought Kobe retiring would be the saddest moment of my life (I’ve had a pretty privileged life). Now, I know that the Lakers aren’t winning anytime soon with Kobe and his inflated contract on the books. Kobe’s the past, and I am sad and nostalgic that the end of his career is approaching, but Randle also gives me hope for the future post-Kobe. Regardless, I’m excited to see what’s in store for the Lakers, win or lose.
Winston Cho is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho