Despite the hard times the Lakers have fallen on, Kobe Bryant still seems to believe the team can turn it around and contend for a championship next season, which he expects to be his last.
Bryant revealed as much in a recent interview in GQ. Yes, the Lakers are saddled with his $25 million salary next season. Yes, he acknowledges there are star players who don’t want to play alongside him. And yes, unless LeBron or Kevin Love quits Cleveland, there really isn’t a superstar out there for the Lakers to sign this summer.
But Bryant still believes the Lakers can work their magic. One big move is all it takes. Like the one the Lakers made — well, almost — for Chris Paul in December 2011.
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"The Lakers pulled off a trade that immediately set us up for a championship, a run of championships later, and which saved money," Bryant told GQ. "Now, the NBA vetoed that trade. But the Lakers pulled that sh-t off, and no one would have thought it was even possible. The trade got vetoed, because they’d just staged the whole lockout to restrict the Lakers. (GM) Mitch (Kupchak) got penalized for being smart. But if we could do that…"
The Lakers and New Orleans Hornets had agreed on a deal that would send Paul to LA, Pau Gasol to Houston, and Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Lamar Odom, Goran Dragic and a first-round pick to New Orleans. But David Stern vetoed the trade by the Hornets, which the league owned at the time. Adam Silver, who was deputy commissioner and has since succeeded Stern, said "We’re relying on the management of that team to make decisions that are in the best interest of that franchise. But ultimately the decision rests with the league office."
Days later, Paul was traded to the Clippers for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and a first-round pick. Paul has since led the Clippers to three straight playoff appearances and two straight division titles. The Lakers won the division after the Paul trade, behind Bryant, Gasol and Andrew Bynum, and reached the playoffs with Dwight Howard the following season. But Howard’s departure and injuries to Bryant, Gasol, Steve Nash and others have sent the Lakers into the worst two-season skid in franchise history. And with no clear heir to the thrones of Bryant and Phil Jackson, who left after the 2010-11 season, the Lakers may not contend with the Clippers — much less for a championship — anytime soon.
"Yeah, sometimes you want to say, ‘Damn it, David Stern,’" Lakers coach Byron Scott said in November. "Yeah, you think about it. When they made the trade before David hexed it, I was like, ‘Wow. That’s going to be fantastic.’"
Scott is the Lakers’ third head coach in four years. Without Paul, the Lakers turned to Nash to be their point guard in July 2012, but paid a steep price for the aging star — two first-round and two second-round picks — and have gotten only 65 regular-season games out of him. He’s out for the season with a back injury and may retire.
"By pairing Howard with Paul instead of an aging Nash, would the Lakers have had a better chance of retaining Howard as a free agent in 2013?" CBS’ Ken Berger wrote a year ago. "Presumably so, but we’ll never know."
"It’s not difficult to see how Bryant’s serious messages would be far better received from Paul, or how much more he could’ve gotten Howard to play the pick-and-roll ball he resisted last season with elder statesman Nash, who never did connect with Howard," Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding wrote a year ago. "The Paul trade, in all likelihood, would’ve altered the course of Howard’s development, maturity and career."
Paul says Lakers fans constantly remind him he should’ve been in purple and gold. Kupchak says he still hasn’t forgiven Stern.
Bryant has been able to laugh at it, as with this tweet of his daughter playing with Paul’s son.