Just three years ago, everything came crashing down for the Lakers.
After three straight West banners and two consecutive NBA championships, the order was upset when Andrew Bynum finally usurped Pau Gasol as L.A.'s best big man and perhaps the Lakers' most effective weapon. Kobe Bryant wasn't convinced because, well, you can never convince Kobe he's not the best option. So throughout the season, as Bynum gnashed, Kobe continued to shoot more than twice as frequently as the center. Five Lakers rotation players shot more frequently than Bynum per minute, and Bynum barely edged two more.
And Bynum began to crumble, especially when the Lakers' clock hit midnight and they got swept out of the playoffs by the Mavericks. I wrote about the Lakers' odd future after Game 3 of that fateful series, about how Bynum was the Kobe to Kobe's Shaq, how Bynum had the fortune of youth on his side and that would eventually lord over Kobe or die tryin'. That every move the Lakers made had to be done in the context of allowing Kobe and Bynum to co-exist, or to avoid the coming war.
A year later, the Lakers bailed on Bynum in what looked like a win-win. L.A. landed one of the few centers better than a healthy Bynum in Dwight Howard and Bynum landed in a city where he could be the undisputed star. It looked like Mitch Kupchak had not only successfully navigated the troubled seas of Kobe's twilight, but had pulled off a Westian heist in the process.
The Basketball Gods, though, or whatever governs basketball (il)logic, had other ideas. Miraculously, Orlando won that massive trade despite being the only team that didn't get an All-Star back. Bynum was injured upon liberty and never played a minute for Philadelphia. Howard immediately and thoroughly clashed with Kobe, more than Bynum ever had, and left of his own volition, giving up money to avoid playing with Bryant again.
Now, neither Bynum nor Kobe is playing. It's likely neither will matter one bit when the playoffs begin in April.
In Bynum, Kobe had a great player who was conditioned to defer to the Black Mamba. Howard lacked that conditioning: in Orlando, he'd never had to defer to anyone but Stan Van Gundy, and he got over that eventually. In Kobe, Bynum had a thick layer of protection from scrutiny. It wasn't as if Bynum was never criticized -- he was, often -- but he was never the problem, the focal point, the scapegoat. In Philadelphia, with his security blanket 3,000 miles away, there was no other option than to be the object of derision, even in street clothes.
But had Kobe and Bynum been forced together beyond 2012, nothing would be better. Bynum was already broken when the trade happened, and 2012-13 would have been even worse than it was with Howard. At least Dwight was on the court most of the season. Bynum would have been in the trainer's room (or the nearest bowling alley). Kobe would still have suffered a horrid injury, come back in 2013, signed a giant extension and gotten injured again. The Lakers wouldn't be in a better place. Bynum wouldn't be in a better place. Kobe wouldn't be in a better place. Everything went wrong for the Lakers when Kupchak broke up the Kobe-Bynum pair, and everything would still have gone wrong if he hadn't. One way or another, fate felled the Lakers.
It's weird because the Lakers are so typically a team above fate of the trying sort. The Lakers usually don't succumb to the same problems other teams have. The Lakers laugh at organizational mortality. Forty-nine playoff appearances in 53 seasons -- that doesn't just happen to normal teams. So the Lakers are not normal, they are exceptional. This doesn't happen to them. They are above it.
Not this time.