On Lakers Media Day, Kobe Bryant, still in his late-career, filterless swoon, mentioned this to Ramona Shelburne amidst commentary on former coach Mike D'Antoni:
"For me, it's winning and no in between...it's championship or a waste of time"
This is nothing new from Kobe. If you've heard this once, you've heard it dozens of times...like later that day, to ESPN's Arash Markazi:
"He [Byron Scott] agrees with me and it's the Lakers organization we're here for one reason only and that's to hang championship banners, not division banners or conference banners or anything else. We don't do that. We focus on winning championships and that's very important for our young guys to understand."
Kobe Bryant does not play for anything besides Larry O'Brien trophies. Even insinuating that he's ever satisfied with less than that would be taken as an insult. He'd probably give you one of his patented "furrowed-brow-flared-nostril-frowny-face" snarls if you said anything like that (amongst his many amazing physical feats, Kobe has the unreal ability to make anyone feel like they've asked the most ridiculous question ever with a simple look). Bryant begins every year believing that he can help get his team to the promised land.
Coming off a season where the Lakers went 27-55 and the team's two best players departed via free agency (in Pau Gasol and Jodie Meeks), a championship seems...unlikely, to say the least. Even the most optimistic (read: delusional) fan couldn't possibly see this squad, as currently constructed, as title contenders. It'd be like asking Jimmy Buss to get an adult haircut--I guess it could happen, but holding out hope is just a waste of your time.
This isn't to say that Kobe truly believes this team is championship material. Until he comes out and says that, let's not paint the psychotically competitive Black Mamba as a certified psychotic. Well, at least in this sense.
However, Bryant has spurred an interesting idea: in the most far-fetched of scenarios, what would have to happen this season for the Lakers to even sniff championship contender status?
A blockbuster trade
First and foremost, there is no situation, no matter how rosy, that could feasibly transform this team of youngsters, retreads and beat-up veterans into a title contender. Seriously. Even if the 12-year-old rookie forward Julius Randle came out of the gates and played like a 19-year-old Moses Malone, this team would merely be a threat to make the playoffs in the Western Conference. That most likely won't happen, mostly because I'm fairly certain Julius Randle doesn't shave yet, let alone could grow Moses' bitchin' moustache.
The first step for this team getting off the mat would be for another team to trade their All-Star to the Lakers in a Pau Gasol-like deal. And not just any All-Star--a guy of the LaMarcus Aldridge-Kevin Love-Al Horford ilk. It would take a very, very good player. And a very, very stupid front office executive. Refrain from your Jim Buss jokes, please. Even though I just made one.
Steve Nash defying science
Steve Nash has missed large parts of the past two seasons due to a broken leg, complications from that broken leg and his body then generally holding up like a pack of saltines in a hot tub.
I'm not saying that Nash can't be a productive player this season--but hoping for it over 70-80 games seems almost illogical. He's struggled so mightily for his entire Lakers tenure that it's extremely difficult to believe that as a 40-year-old, all of his injuries--including back issues that have plagued him for a decade now--are suddenly going to fly away like the swallows of San Juan Capistrano. It defies science to believe that Nash is going to make a fully healthy comeback. But if the Lakers can throw a German Suplex on Sir Isaac Newton's theories, I guess it's possible.
Fringe role players becoming legitimate contributors
This whole argument hinges on Wesley Johnson becoming better than replacement level. Seeing as I'm trying to base this article in even the most remotely plausible of theories, I'll just go ahead and move on.
Jeremy Lin: All-Star
Though I'm putting myself squarely in the crosshairs of the Legion of Lin (Jeremy's fan club whose name I just made up), as Rick Ross says, "You gotta pay the cost to be the boss" (I have no idea if Rick Ross ever said that).
If the Lakers want to come close to being a contender this year, their new import from Houston via New York via Houston via Golden State will have to be so good that he makes the All-Star team. How good is that? Good enough to beat out of the following for a spot: Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Goran Dragic and Tony Parker. That seems...unlikely.
By my calculus, Lin would have to put up around 18 ppg and 7 apg playing alongside Kobe Bryant, which may mean close to 39% shooting from downtown. That's a lot to ask of most players, let alone one who will have such a large offensive burden on him already to create plays for others.
Lin must be a star for the Lakers to fall back into contention. Thank God Mike D'Antoni is there to help him get back to prime form though.
Kobe Bryant as good as he thinks he is
Even at his 2002-2009 peak where many proclaimed him the best player in the world, still no one thought Kobe Bryant was quite as good as Kobe Bryant thought Kobe Bryant was.
In his mind, Kobe is still a franchise cornerstone. He believes that he is the fulcrum by which he can get the Lakers to a Finals berth. Bryant has enunciated, multiple times, that despite all the surgeries and his age that he'll be no less efficient than he ever was, just in different ways from what we're expecting. He'll need to be just as good as he was in 2012-2013 for the Lakers to even be competitive.
Byron Scott: Defensive mastermind
This, more than Steve Nash being infused with Wolverine's blood or Kobe being infused with his own blood, has to be the key to the Lakers getting back into championship mode.
Scott has forged a reputation as a defensive-minded coach in his up and down career, though after looking through some numbers, it's kind of puzzling to see why. Perhaps it's that he doesn't seem to know how to stand up without crossing his arms, or his Riley-esque boot camp practice sessions, or the fact that he's known as kind of a jerk. But regardless of the reason, his reputation is a part of why the Lakers hired him.
Now, I hate to bring actual statistics into this very tongue-firmly-implanted-in-cheek article, but looking at Byron's teams over the past ten years, I'm struggling to find out why he's known as a defense-first coach:
2012 - 2013 Cleveland Cavaliers: 27th in Defensive Efficiency
2011 - 2012 Cleveland Cavaliers: 26th in Defensive Efficiency
2010 - 2011 Cleveland Cavaliers: 29th in Defensive Efficiency
2005 - 2006 New Orleans Hornets: 19th in Defense Efficiency
2004 - 2005 New Orleans Hornets: 22nd in Defense Efficiency
You'll note that I left out several New Orleans Hornets teams, each of which were actually quite good defensively. Small detail in that factoid though: the starting center was Tyson Chandler. Yes, peak career Tyson Chandler at his defensive best.
Those other teams of Scott's? All very young squads with potential without any substantial, healthy defensive anchor up the middle. Very, very similar to the 2014-2015 Lakers. However, if Robert Sacre can transform into a DPOY candidate, we're good to go. And if Brock Lesnar joins the team at starting power forward.
Joking aside, for the Lakers to become the championship-minded team Kobe proclaims he only plays for, the sheer confluence of amount of pieces falling into place is really staggering. I've read the front office reference the 2007-2008 Lakers as a touchpoint here, in that that was a team with so few expectations that eventually went to the NBA Finals. While that's absolutely true, they also made mid-season trades for Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza, had Jordan Farmar and Ronny Turiaf emerge as important role players, had the greatest coach of all-time at the helm and of course, a 29-year-old Kobe Bryant.
I mean, it could happen. Right?
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino