In reality, the Lakers had to do something. They had to scour the free agent and trade markets in hopes of shaking up its roster to return it to championship form.
It was necessary because, quite frankly, there are no other alternatives when you are managing a Kobe Bryant-led squad. The most decorated basketball superstar of his generation, the man known as the Black Mamba doesn’t play for anything but a championship. He expects Mitch Kupchak and the rest of the Laker brain trust to field a team capable of helping him reach that goal.
After the young Oklahoma City Thunder bulldozed through the Lakers in the second round of this past postseason, Bryant spoke of how he trusted the Lakers’ management staff to do what was necessary for the Lakers to bounce back next season. It was a threat just as much as it was a compliment.
“I’m not the most patient of people, and the organization is not extremely patient, either,” he said while on the post-game podium following their series-ending loss to Oklahoma City. “We want to win and win now. I’m sure we’ll figure it out. We always have, and I’m sure we will again.”
With Bryant’s wishes clearly outlined, the Los Angeles Lakers have managed to acquire future Hall of Famer Steve Nash in a sign-and-trade deal with the Phoenix suns that can only be made official as of July 11th. Given the well-documented hatred between Kobe’s Lakers and Nash’s Suns, the move came as a surprise to many. Reiterating the Lakers’ penchant for retooling quickly following playoff disappointments, however, Kobe says he wasn’t surprised at all.
“I believed it because we’ve done it. We’ve done it over and over and over. You think about the three-peat run we’ve had with myself and Shaq. How quickly we rebuilt that. It took a couple years, but all of a sudden we’re back in the NBA Finals. It takes a lot of patience and smart decision-making on management’s part.”
The Lakers have a productive yet aging superstar and a team who is clearly regressing following two consecutive second round exits in the playoffs. In most cities, this would signal the start of a rebuilding process, but not in Los Angeles and most certainly not on Kobe’s watch.
The seeds to his seemingly limitless power over the team’s player personnel group were planted following Shaq’s departure after the Lakers’ NBA Finals defeat at the hands of the Detroit Pistons in 2004. But they run deeper than that. At the time, the Lakers appeared primed for a fresh start. Karl Malone sat out half of the following season and eventually retired. Gary Payton and Rick Fox were traded to the Boston Celtics. Phil Jackson’s contract was not renewed. Bryant, on the other hand, was rewarded with a seven-year contract extension to remain with the team.
The results, however, weren’t pretty. They missed the playoffs in 2005 and were defeated in the first rounds of both the 2006 and 2007 seasons by Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns. The fans had grown weary of the mediocrity and so did Kobe. In the aftermath of their third season in the post-Shaq era, he publicly expressed his displeasure with the team’s direction as well as a desire to be traded.
“I would like to be traded, yeah. Tough as it is to come to that conclusion there’s no other alternative, you know?” said Bryant during a 2007 interview with Stephen A. Smith on 1050 ESPN radio in New York. “[The Lakers] obviously want to move in a different direction in terms of rebuilding,” he continued. “Three years ago when I was re-signing, they should have told me they wanted to rebuild.”
The Lakers front office knew they couldn’t afford to lose him. It was around this time that the Staples Center crowd had grown fonder than ever of Bryant, as he put up some of the finest individual numbers of his career, evidenced by his jaw-dropping average of 35.4 points per game in a season that included his historic 81-point explosion against the Toronto Raptors.
It was crisis time in Los Angeles. Phil Jackson, who had been re-hired to coach the Lakers a couple of seasons prior to Kobe’s trade demands, intervened and was able to reassure his star player that the team was moving in the right direction. The following season, the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol near the NBA’s trading deadline as the Lakers went 22-5 to finish the regular season en route to a Finals appearance that ended with a loss to the Boston Celtics. A year later, the Lakers won the first of back-to-back championships, eventually bringing Kobe’s ring total to five. This time, with no Shaq to be found, he solidified his status as the undisputed king of L.A.
Most superstars who demand trades end up being vilified by their team’s fan base, but not Bryant. It also helps that his unrelenting championship aspirations mesh perfectly with the Laker fan base. They demand NBA championships no matter the cost. In the end though, Kobe succeeded in lighting a fire under his team’s management that propelled them to championship heights. His trade demand helped him consolidate his power, and the championships that followed officially legitimized his stranglehold over the organization.
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