(Eds: With AP Photos.)By TIM DAHLBERGAP Sports Columnist
It started innocently enough, with the Los Angeles Lakers swooping in as the NBA lockout ended to grab Chris Paul and add another superstar for the beautiful people sitting courtside at Staples Center to enjoy.
Nothing new there. Just the Lakers being the Lakers, eager to make amends for the first NBA finals they missed in four years. Word was they might even land Dwight Howard, giving them a trio of stars to rival even the biggest stars in Miami.
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Then David Stern stepped in as the Grinch who stole Christmas. And so began a week that would make even Jack Nicholson flinch.
It ended Friday night with news out of the Southland that was far more shocking than it would have been eight years ago. Kobe Bryant’s wife filed for divorce, adding another layer of uncertainty to a season that seems to be crumbling even before it begins.
How’s this for parity in the new NBA? The team that has been in three of the last four NBA finals – winning two of them – might now be the second best team in its own arena.
The Clippers – with Paul now in their backcourt and Blake Griffin with his spectacular dunks- already own the buzz. They might soon own the town.
”I’d definitely go watch them,” Bryant said the other day. ”Blake Griffin has, like, a 60-inch vertical. Chris is vastly entertaining. For sure, I’d go check them out. They’re a team with a high motor. They’re young, and they run up and down the floor.”
The Lakers, of course, were that kind of team – and it wasn’t so long ago. No one was more entertaining than Bryant, Lamar Odom was the best player in the league coming off the bench, and Pau Gasol gave them an inside-outside game that was hard to shut down.
But Bryant is now in his 16th year, and growing increasingly grumpy by the day. Odom was unceremoniously shipped to Dallas in the wake of the failed Paul trade and Gasol has to be wondering how long the welcome mat will remain out for him.
Phil Jackson is gone, too, taking his special courtside chair and his collection of NBA titles with him. There’s a new offense to learn under Mike Brown, and only a few days to learn it before the Lakers open the season Christmas Day against the Chicago Bulls.
And there’s no sign Howard will be heading to the West Coast anytime soon.
”I’ve never quite seen something like this unfold,” Bryant said. ”It’s kind of become somewhat of a mess.”
Things got even messier for Lakers fans when Bryant’s wife filed for divorce after a decade of marriage. Vanessa Bryant famously stuck with her husband after he was charged with sexual assault in Colorado in 2003, and reports at the time said he bought her a $4 million diamond ring.
Bryant managed to play his way through those troubles, and he’s got the on-court focus to do the same thing with his current personal woes. But he’s now 33 and the wear and tear of so many NBA seasons has taken its toll in a variety of injuries the past few years. His best years are almost surely behind him, and his ability to take over games almost at will is not what it once was.
He’s not happy Stern snatched Paul away before he could put on a Lakers uniform, and even less happy the Lakers traded Odom to Dallas with little more than a draft pick in return.
The start of the season may reignite his fire. But the fact remains that this Laker team is a year older and not as good as the one that was embarrassed by the Mavericks in the playoffs last year, even with Ron Artest being replaced by Metta World Peace.
For that, Stern deserves much of the blame. Without his interference the Lakers would be a much different team, with two superstars in the backcourt and more than enough money left over to help acquire Howard from Orlando. Indeed, Stern’s veto of the trade had to make Laker owner Jerry Buss apoplectic, especially after Stern approved the eventual trade to the Clippers.
Stern accomplished what he wanted, which was not allowing the rich to get richer. That was an important message to send in the wake of the 149-day lockout, but it cost the Lakers dearly – especially when Odom felt disrespected by being included in the aborted Paul trade and demanded to go elsewhere.
Now the Lakers have a lot to sort out, and little time to do it. Christmas is a week away, and the Bulls won’t be coming to town bearing gifts.
Right now Lakers fans have to be feeling as if they just got a lump of coal in their stockings.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg