Kobe Bryant went out on a limb, as some may have thought at the time, and made the guarantee that the Lakers would make the playoffs when they had a paltry record of 26-29 and, which was three-and-a-half games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the highly competitive Western Conference.
The Lakers had an off-season for the ages, or so we would have imagined in the hot summer months of July. They acquired former rival and two time MVP Steve Nash from the Phoenix Suns and the three time Defensive Player of the Year, arguably the greatest center in the game today, Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard. They also added an aging, yet capable scorer Antawn Jamison and the three point specialist, Jodi Meeks. This was supposed to be a team that would make every other super team look relatively ordinary.
However, the expected extraordinary play of the Lakers was never realized early on in the season.
With the appalling start of 1-4 for the Mike Brown led regime, the Lakers brass knew they had to act quickly and right the ship that seemed doomed to be headed strait towards an iceberg, a sizable iceberg, one that could be compared to the one that derailed the Titanic.
Like the Titanic, this Lakers team was supposed to be built on a strong and impenetrable foundation. With the aforementioned newly acquired stars in Howard and Nash, the Lakers already had the most offensively talented seven-footer in the game, and two-time NBA champion, Pau Gasol, former defensive player of the year in Metta World Peace and the greatest player of his generation and a top 5 player in NBA history, Kobe "Bean" Bryant.
When the Lakers made the right decision to axe Brown as the head coach of the organization that won 16 championships, the Lakers instantly began to play with more energy and enthusiasm. They went 4-1 after the 1-4 start, which left them at the .500 mark and optimism began to creep in their psyches. The Lakers made the decision to hire Mike D'Antoni, the offensive renaissance man and genius instead of re-hiring the 11-time champion Phil Jackson.
It was the wrong decision for several reasons, which we can get into at a later date. It simply comes down to one fact. If the Lakers hired Jackson, they would most certainly go on a championship run, perhaps another three-peat for the Jackson-led team. Remember Phil Jackson does not just win championships intermittently, he builds champions that do not fall apart. Jackson has three separate three-peat championship runs, and an additional back-to-back. Since they chose D'Antoni, it would be a surprise if he won more than one championship with the Lakers do to his lack recognition for defense.
But again, that's another discussion for another date.
With Nash and Gasol missing significant time during the season, it was all up to Kobe to teach, coach, and play for the Lakers.
Kobe has never been on a team that had such high expectations, and were unable to meet those lofty standards.
But if Kobe Bryant was not on this team, they most likely would have a terrific seat at the NBA Draft Lottery come May.
But Kobe, arguably the best player the game has ever seen, is playing at the highest level of his NBA career. At 34 years old, and 17 years in the Association, Kobe Bryant is playing the most efficient and impactful ball of his life.
The reason why he is eclipsing his once thought of prime, is precisely because of one fundamental fact. He is constantly adapting his game, on a nightly basis, to what the team needs him to do. One night he is the league leader in assists, one night he is the games greatest scorer, one night he is a dynamic rebounder, one night he is the defensive ball stopper, and on seemingly every night, he is the most durable player the game has ever seen.
Kobe has career averages of 25.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game on 45% shooting from the field.
This season, Kobe is scoring 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.4 steals per game on 46% shooting.
His 2012-2013 stats do not seem to pop off the page when contrasted to his career averages, but when you take into account that there have essentially been multiple acts to Kobe's season, the consistency and the dominance of his game is truly revealed and apparent.
Kobe held the scoring lead in the NBA for the first few months of the season while hovering around the 30.0 mark the entire time. He was scoring at the most efficient rate of his career, but the Lakers were not winning because the other parts were not falling into place.
Dwight Howard was unable to find a comfort zone and Nash was out during the second game of the season for an extended period. Gasol was in and out of the lineup with a rash of injuries prior to tearing his plantar fascia in Brooklyn. Essentially, it was up to Kobe to lead the charge, and continue to reach the .500 mark until all the ingredients of this Lakers team came together.
In the Lakers first 32 games, Kobe scored 27 points or more in all but six games.
From December 2nd to January 4th, Kobe averaged 34.2 points and scored under 30 twice, one game was 29, the other was 27.
He was scoring with greater ease and a greater cerebral approach to the game which he has dedicated his life to.
A few weeks later, Kobe realized his scoring was not helping his team win ball games, so he transformed on the fly. On January 25th, Kobe changed from a mirror image of Michael Jordan to the incarnate of Earvin Magic Johnson.
Kobe scored 14 points, grabbed 9 rebounds and dished out 14 assists, one shy of his career high in a Laker win. Just two nights later, Kobe registered another transcendent stat line of 21 points, 9 rebounds and 14 assists, leading the Lakers to another much needed victory.
Essentially every game after Christmas was a must win scenario for the Lakers. No one on the team besides Kobe had unflappable confidence in the Lakers attempts to make it to the postseason.
Night after night Kobe Bryant would set records and will his undermanned, both physically and mentally, Lakers to a victory.
On February 22nd, Kobe became the oldest player in NBA history to score 38 points in back-to-back games while shooting over 50% from the field.
When you think nothing else Kobe could do could surprise you, he seemingly always defies expectations and reaches beyond even his owns standards of excellence.
In back-to-back come from behind victory of the New Orleans Pelicans and the Toronto Raptors this season, Kobe averaged a magnificent 41.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 12.0 assists. Kobe is the only player in NBA history to score 41 points, grab 6 rebounds and dish out 12 assists in a single game.
When we thought the the height of Kobe Bryant's greatness had already been witnessed, he continues to amaze.
When the Lakers raised Shaquille O'Neal's number 34 to the rafters in a retirement ceremony, Kobe made it a point to steal the show by registering a triple-double with 23 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, with 4 steals and 2 blocks against the streaking Dallas Mavericks who had won 9 of 12 games coming into Los Angeles who were also chasing the 8th seed in the west.
For the past few weeks, the Lakers have been jockeying with Utah Jazz for the final spot out west, and if it were not for Kobe Bryant's guarantee, the Lakers may not even be in this position in the first place.
On April 10th on a back-to-back, the Lakers headed to the Rose Garden to face the Portland Trailblazers in attempts to win the first back-to-back game all season. Since the Lakers are an old(er) team, they have failed to have the legs to win one back-to-back all year. So a win in Portland would help instill confidence in the Laker locker room and show that they are in fact improving at the right time.
However, Kobe knows the season is dwindling away. They were currently a 1/2 game up in the loss column against the Jazz coming into Portland on Wednesday night, and they had their own destiny in their control.
Win, and they are that much closer to the playoffs, lose, and perhaps they will face the longest and most difficult off-season of any of their careers.
Kobe knows the buck stops with him. He is the captain. He is the unquestioned leader. He is the franchise's greatest player. He is arguably the best player of All-Time.
If Kobe fails to make it to the playoffs with this current roster, it will forever taint his legacy.
Would Michael Jordan ever fail to make the playoffs with a former MVP and three time Defensive Player of the Year on his team? Enough said.
Kobe knows he needs to will his team to the postseason.
Since March 30th, Kobe has played 48, 47, 43, 47, 41, and 48 minutes in each game. He is Ironman. He is the only man that can will this team to the playoffs.
On April 10th, on a back-to-back in Portland, Kobe perhaps had the greatest game of his career.
Kobe registered 47 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 steals and 4 blocks on 14-27 shooting from the field while playing every second of the game. Kobe is the only player in NBA history since, 1973-1974 when they Association began registering blocks and steals, to amass a stat line that he put together with four games left in the year.
The Lakers now stand a full game ahead of the Jazz for the final playoff spot out West and if they fail to reach their goal, they have only themselves to blame.
The Lakers finish the season against three playoff teams, the San Antonio Spurs, the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets.
If this season continues to form, Kobe will have three masterpieces and the Staples Center hardwood will serve as his canvas.
Each Laker game to close out the season is appointment television, if the Lakers are unable to come through and attain their goal, no one will blame Kobe more than himself.