(Kobe after the Lakers' defeat in the 2007 playoffs. Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
Life without Shaq wasn't going well for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. For the second year in a row, Los Angeles lost to the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs. Meanwhile, Shaquille O'Neal had already won an NBA title with the Miami Heat. Even with Phil Jackson having returned to coach the Lakers, there wasn't enough around Kobe to make him think things were going to get better.
So in May of 2007, Bryant went on Stephen A. Smith's radio show and pronounced that he had had enough. "I would like to be traded. And as tough as it is to say that, as tough as it is to come to that conclusion, there's no other alternative."
About three hours later, Bryant appeared on The Dan Patrick Show, and while he stuck to his outrage at having nothing around him, he did backtrack on his status with the Lakers. "I don't want to go anyplace else. I don't want to. I want to be a Laker. I want to be here for the rest of my career."
Later in the day, he appeared on local station KLAC and said, "I can only hope that they do something because I don't want to go no place else. I don't want to. I want to stay here. I hope they can do something." In his final interview of the day -- this time with the L.A. Times -- Bryant reaffirmed that he didn't want to leave the team. But when asked about whether he still wanted to be traded, Bryant answered, "yes."
Never had there been a harder day for an NBA analyst at ESPN. Surely, many of them began the day thinking of possible trade scenarios and reminiscing how it had come to this. Then they had to make some semblance out of his demands for a trade and his notion that he didn't want to be traded.
Other than the baffling way he made his trade demands, most analysts more or less backed his complaints. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak had passed on the opportunity to acquire players such as Carlos Boozer, Baron Davis, and Jason Kidd. He had traded future-All Star Caron Butler to the Wizards for Kwame Brown, and then gave Brown a hefty pay raise. That offseason, the Lakers skipped on the chance to land Kevin Garnett because they didn't want to part with Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum.
When the 07-08 season began, Kobe was still on the Lakers roster. In the home opener against the Houston Rockets, Bryant was booed in front of his own fans, a distinction only Stephon Marbury would share that season. A deal was in place with the Chicago Bulls to trade Bryant for Luol Deng and Ben Gordon. It appeared that his days in L.A. were coming to an end.
And yet as the season went on, things gradually got better. Bynum began to develop into a low-post force and Bryant was not reluctant to give him the ball. In a Christmas rematch with the Suns, Bynum shot 11-13 and had 28 points and 12 boards. Remarked Bryant after their seven-point win, "I’m very happy. I’m happy because we have a very close-knit group here. We’re like brothers. We all get along, so the chemistry is great."
In January, the Lakers' rollercoaster season took a sudden downward spiral. In a win over the Memphis Grizzlies, Bynum suffered a season-ending knee injury. At the time, the Lakers had won 16 of 19 games and were in first place in the Western Conference.
(Bynum's injury nearly ruined the season. Photo by Richard Vogel, AP Photos)
The Lakers would've gone nowhere with Bynum sitting out the rest of the year. However Mitch Kupchak, who Kobe Bryant would've personally fired nine months ago, pulled off one of the biggest steals in league history. Kupchak acquired Pau Gasol from Memphis for Kwame Brown, rookie Javaris Crittenton, veteran Aaron McKie, two first round draft picks, and Pau's brother Marc.
Pau was the bona fide No. 2 scorer the Lakers had needed. He was more developed than Bynum and was a better passer and shooter. Within three weeks, the Lakers had won ten in a row and were once again atop the Western Conference. Bryant referred to the trade as "grand larceny." Even the Grizzlies' owner confessed, "I don’t know if I got the most value. Maybe our people should’ve shopped (Gasol) more..."
From there, the Lakers rolled through a stacked Western Conference which showcased eight 50-win teams and a ninth-placed Warriors team that won 48. Including playoff games, the Lakers lost just seven times with Gasol in the lineup. Bryant played every game despite a broken pinkie on his right hand, garnering him respect throughout the league. The Lakers finished with the best record in the West and advanced to the NBA Finals. Kobe Bryant was named the MVP of the league.
From the lows of being booed off his home court and asking to be traded, to being a contender with the emergence of Bynum, to losing Bynum and floundering, to getting Gasol and reclaiming the top spot in the West, and then winning the MVP and conquering the conference, never had anyone gone through a more fluctuating season than Bryant. His image was the highest it had ever been since the rape accusation -- he had finally done what his detractors said he couldn't: win without Shaq.
(Kobe hoists his 2008 MVP trophy. Photo by Robert Gauthier, Reuters)
Unfortunately the Lakers ride had one more slope to it. The Boston Celtics, who were sizable underdogs following the Lakers' recent success, had their way with L.A. in the Finals. They controlled the Lake-show in games 1 and 2, came back from a 24-point deficit in Game 4, and demolished the Lakers by 39 in Game 6. In the series, Gasol and Odom disappeared while Bryant was outplayed by Paul Pierce.
The Lakers knew they'd be a contender next year, but for the moment it was business as usual for the post-Shaq era: an embarrassing loss and an offseason of regret.
The following season, they beat the Orlando Magic in six games to win their 15th title in franchise history.