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Monday, Dec. 19, 2011

Stern assumes role of Grinch for Lakers


NEW YORK — It started innocently enough, with the Los Angeles Lakers swooping in as the NBA lockout ended to grab Chris Paul and add another superstar for the beautiful people sitting courtside at Staples Center to enjoy.

News photo
Season's greetings: Kobe Bryant (left) and former Lakers teammate Lamar Odom, seen in a July 18, 2003 file photo, have not had a happy holiday season thanks to the fallout from the team's failed trade for Chris Paul. AP

Nothing new there. Just the Lakers being the Lakers, eager to make amends for the first NBA Finals they missed in four years. Word was they might even land Dwight Howard, giving them a trio of stars to rival even the biggest stars in Miami.

Then David Stern stepped in as the Grinch who stole Christmas. And so began a week that would make even Jack Nicholson flinch.

It ended Friday night with news out of the Southland that was far more shocking than it would have been eight years ago. Kobe Bryant's wife filed for divorce, adding another layer of uncertainty to a season that seems to be crumbling even before it begins.

How's this for parity in the new NBA? The team that has been in three of the last four NBA Finals — winning two of them — might now be the second best team in its own arena.

The Clippers — with Paul now in their backcourt and Blake Griffin with his spectacular dunks- already own the buzz. They might soon own the town.

"I'd definitely go watch them," Bryant said the other day. "Blake Griffin has, like, a 60-inch (15.2-cm) vertical. Chris is vastly entertaining. For sure, I'd go check them out. They're a team with a high motor. They're young, and they run up and down the floor."

The Lakers, of course, were that kind of team — and it wasn't so long ago. No one was more entertaining than Bryant, Lamar Odom was the best player in the league coming off the bench, and Pau Gasol gave them an inside-outside game that was hard to shut down.

But Bryant is now in his 16th year, and growing increasingly grumpy by the day. Odom was unceremoniously shipped to Dallas in the wake of the failed Paul trade and Gasol has to be wondering how long the welcome mat will remain out for him.

Phil Jackson is gone, too, taking his special courtside chair and his collection of NBA titles with him.

And there's no sign Howard will be heading to the West Coast anytime soon.

"I've never quite seen something like this unfold," Bryant said. "It's kind of become somewhat of a mess."

Bryant managed to play his way through troubles in the past, and he's got the on-court focus to do the same thing with his current personal woes. But he's now 33 and the wear and tear of so many NBA seasons has taken its toll in a variety of injuries the past few years. His best years are almost surely behind him, and his ability to take over almost at will is not what it once was.

The start of the season may reignite his fire. But the fact remains that this Lakers team is a year older and not as good as the one that was embarrassed by the Mavericks in the playoffs last year.

For that, Stern deserves much of the blame. Without his interference the Lakers would be a much different team, with two superstars in the backcourt and more than enough money left over to help acquire Howard.

Stern accomplished what he wanted, which was not allowing the rich to get richer. That was an important message to send in the wake of the 149-day lockout, but it cost the Lakers dearly — especially when Odom felt disrespected by being included in the aborted Paul trade and demanded to go elsewhere.

Now the Lakers have a lot to sort out, and little time to do it. Christmas is a week away, and the Chicago Bulls won't be coming to town bearing gifts on opening night.

Right now Lakers fans have to be feeling as if they just got a lump of coal in their stockings.

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