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Oh, what a turn around! In what began as a season on the brink and a franchise in turmoil, the Lakers finished the regular season this week as arguably the most feared team in the loaded Western Conference and a good shot to capture the NBA championship in June.
Such lofty expectations were not on the horizon when Bryant blasted owner Dr. Jerry Buss and General Manager Mitch Kupchak for not doing enough to improve the team that has been ousted in the first round of the playoffs every year since they traded Shaq Daddy.
The Lakers brass responded by bringing back an old friend in Derek Fisher, who has been larger than his 11 point per game contribution and has started every game this season at point guard.
Then the versatile Lamar Odom stayed healthy long enough to start in 77 games and led the team in rebounding with 10 per game while second only to Bryant in many other team categories including points with 14 and assists with 3.9.
“Personally, I’ve never been in this situation before. People were giving us the No. 8 spot,” said Odom whose name was bandied about in constant trade rumors.
Second year point guard Jordan Farmar saw his minutes per game increase to 27 and responded with nine points per game off the bench to give the team some much needed depth and before going down with what is now a season ending knee injury, youngster Andrew Bynum was playing like the best center in the league averaging 13 points and 10 rebounds in the 35 games he played, 25 as a starter.
Bryant was smiling again and the future looked rosy, but when Bynum went down with an injury that didn’t appear to be that serious, things looked bleak again.
With Bynum out for the foreseeable future the prospects of a long playoff run appeared dim, but then Kupchak made a remarkable trade to get Pau Gasol, a scoring center from Memphis, in exchange for a rookie point guard and draft picks and from San Antonio to the valley of the sun in Phoenix everyone was crying foul.
Gasol fit the Lakers like a glove and in 26 games remained consistent with an 18 point per game average and has been third on the team in assists with 3.5.
Put Bryant’s monster numbers of 28 points per game and team leading 5.4 assists into that mix and then you have something special.
Gasol was not the only meaningful acquisition that Kupchak made, the first one was when he got the athletic Trevor Ariza from Orlando, and playing limited minutes Ariza averaged 6.5 points per game and was on the cusp a challenging Luke Walton for even a bigger chunk of playing time before he suffered an ankle injury. There no telling if Ariza will be back this season, which in essence complicates those championship aspirations the Lakers fans currently have.
For the Lakers to win the Western Conference would be a monumental achievement in the highest regards. This is the most talented conference in the NBA and anyone of six teams could be favored to win the NBA title.
There is no certainty that the Lakers would even make it out of the first round although they could have home court advantage in each of the rounds they stay alive in.
Phoenix, not to be outdone by the Lakers moves traded for Shaq Daddy from Miami and now they appear to be the team to beat in the West. The defending champion Spurs have yet to click their heels and during the final week of the regular season looked like a team that was on the demise, but in this league looks can be deceiving.
You can check to the Lakers for how deceiving they can be. Imagine how the Bulls must feel now for not pulling the trigger on that Bryant trade.
Perhaps they’d leap in front of that sports car zooming at 70 miles per hour instead of over it like Kobe does in those promotional campaign.