Today, we get our first glimpse of something that nobody in Lakers Nation has any interest in experiencing: Life without Kobe Bryant. Tonight's game against the San Antonio Spurs won't be the first missed game in Kobe Bryant's career, but it will be the first game of what will undoubtedly be the longest absence of his career, and absence that will likely stretch from this season to the next. And perhaps more importantly, it will be the first time Kobe has missed any time at all since his heir apparent joined the franchise.
Today, if he wants to, Dwight Howard becomes the new boy king. For the remainder of their games this season, the Lakers will lean on Dwight almost as heavily as they leaned on Kobe. The offense will run through him. The defense will be his responsibility. If the Lakers are to achieve anything at all this season, it will be because Dwight Howard will ascend to the throne at just the right time to become the player we always thought he was. It will be a glimpse of a possible future that assumes Dwight will put pen to paper and remain in Los Angeles in the off-season, a future that, by definition, can not involve Kobe Bryant forever.
Over the past 10 games, Kobe has been the Lakers. He has played nearly every minute of action. He has been heavily involved (mostly in the right ways) in all aspects of the offense. He has taken the team on his back and carried them to this point. But this point is not the finish line. There are another two games to play, and depending on how things play out, more games after that. And none of us can have any clue what to expect.
It seems obvious that the Lakers will be worse off without Kobe Bryant. He is a player of tremendous talent and experience, and his efforts have been vital in keeping the Lakers playoff hopes alive in recent weeks. Without Kobe, the Lakers would already be planning their summer vacations. Now he is gone for the season, and Steve Nash is still yet to return, and all the Lakers have are a couple of All-Stars who play the same position, and a bunch of crap.
And yet ... in the short term, for the next two games, it would not be shocking if the Lakers play well and manage to get the job done in getting into the playoffs. This will not be a reflection of the "fact" that the Lakers are better off with Kobe. It will not be an indication that running the team through Dwight or Pau should have been the strategy all along, that Kobe was somehow holding the team back from its ideal style of play. It will only be an indication that the team has come together, understood what Kobe's injury means to them, and they have responded accordingly. This happens a lot. A star goes down, and for some reason, the team that remains grows stronger in the star's absence. Pressure disappears, identities change and clarify, and despite missing one of the best parts of all, the new parts somehow add up to a greater sum. The team comes together and everybody gets that they must do more than they usually do. It doesn't last forever; eventually the loss of talent overwhelms any gains to be made through this strange phenomenon.
But the Lakers don't need it to last forever. They need it to last two games. Two games that will provide further definition as to whether this Lakers season is a truly abysmal failure or one for which some small amount of glory can be restored. Get in to the playoffs now, with Kobe out, and you can salvage some sort of honorable story line about beating the insurmountable odds of dealing with injuries left and right. Plus, a trip to the playoffs carries with it the fool's hope of even more glory.
Or, the Lakers could fall apart. With nobody to provide a threat on the perimeter, the Spurs might just put all five defenders in the paint and laugh as the Lakers struggle to deal with life without the Mamba. With the greatest obstacle of all in a season full of them delivered at the final bend of the race, the Lakers might just decide to a man that enough is enough. For large parts of the last two weeks, it has seemed like Kobe was the only one fighting to get the Lakers into the playoffs. With him gone, there are only two logical possibilities: that everybody will realize the need to step up and fight for him. Or that there will be nobody left to fight. I have no idea what to expect, and therefore expect nothing.
What I do know is this: Starting right now, the Lakers season will either become something worth following, or it will end very, very soon. Either development would be fine with me.