Tuck: Kobe, Lakers Not Done Yet

“I’m not fading into the shadows if that’s what you’re asking.  We’re not going anywhere.  I’m not going anywhere.”

Kobe Bryant was confident and defiant as ever last night after the Thunder eliminated the Lakers in 5 games in the 2nd round of the Western Conference Playoffs.

And why shouldn’t he be?

The Spurs are still playing, and some people think better than ever.  They didn’t make any major moves.  Only some minor tweaks has them 8 wins away from another title.

The Celtics are a win away from the Eastern Conference Finals.  Their 3 stars (not including Rondo) are all older than Kobe.

And at last glance, Kobe himself didn’t look like he was tired and over-matched, did he?

The Lakers played the younger, faster, more athletic Thunder down to the wire in 3 straight games.  It’s not a moral victory.  It’s a recognition that an improvement, even slight improvements at 1, 2, or 3 spots in the rotation could have had the Lakers still playing in the playoffs.  They lost to a better team, and maybe the best team in the league.  It wasn’t so close to think a shot or two could have shifted the series, but it was close enough that a player or two could.  That is next year.  Or the year after.

The Lakers are limited in what they can do.  They are way over the salary cap.  Heck, they are way over the luxury tax.  A $200 million a year TV deal should cushion the blow, but management won’t be able to just spend like they are the Yankees anymore with luxury tax punishments becoming more severe in 2013.  So they have the mid-level, and they have two great players to potentially trade.  Gasol and Bynum, despite the expected criticism, are both comfortably amongst the best 25 players in the league.  Both are top 5 big men.  So yeah, they are valuable.

What the Lakers must figure out is are they valuable enough to stick with?  The Spurs could have parted ways with Tony Parker or Manu Ginobli for each of the last 4 years, title-less in each, but they kept those players and continued to tweak the rest of the roster.  Most people presumed them dead and out of the title picture.  They didn’t.  And they clearly aren’t.  That is an argument to stick with what’s helped make you great LA.  A 1-2 big man punch no team can equal.

Of course, money plays a big factor, and that is why one, and maybe both could be moved.  That Lakers strength got sorely outplayed in Game 5, pounded on the boards and in the paint.  That is the checkmark to do it differently.  Maybe you become smaller, but you have to become faster, quicker, and shoot the ball better.  The Lakers are slow.  The 3-pointer is a weapon in basketball.  The Lakers don’t carry that gun in their holster currently.  There is no more Fisher, Horry, Glen Rice, or Brian Shaw.

The reality is, regardless what they do, IS THAT THEY HAVE OPTIONS.  THEY AREN’T OUT OF OPTIONS.

I feared Kobe Bryant was running on fumes last year.  He lost a step.  Lost his bounce.  Looked old at the end of the Dallas series.

And then he went to Germany.

2010-11 Regular season: 25.3 ppg  Postseason: 22.8 ppg

2011-12 Regular season: 27.9 ppg  Postseason: 30 ppg

That speaks volumes.  He isn’t done.  Not even close.  As long as that is the case, the Lakers aren’t done.

There was no passing of the torch.  Heck, that doesn’t even make sense.  The Thunder were in the Western Conference Finals a year ago and lost to the “old” Mavericks.  Now they are up against the “old” Spurs.  The Thunder have arrived as a contender.  They did last year.  But they haven’t taken over.  OKC is just another hurdle.  No different than the Spurs, or Heat.

One more thing.  Everyone is on a clock, not just the Lakers.  Dallas changed a lot after last year.  OKC has one more year with their current roster before they must make tough cap decisions.  The Heat may have just two more years as we know them. Chicago may already be falling apart.  Things change.  Quickly.

The Spurs are an inspiration.  And so is a rejuvenated Kobe Bryant.  The Lakers won’t be rebuilding around a fading star.  They are rebuilding around a super-star.

“It’s kind of unfamiliar territory,” Bryant said. “I’m really not used to it. It’s pretty odd for me. I’m not the most patient of people and the organization’s not extremely patient either. 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.”

Kobe isn’t done yet, and neither are the Lakers.