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Monday, Oct. 27, 9:27 a.m.
Sports

In lieu of Kobe’s milestone, Lakers still a mess

The Los Angeles Lakers are currently 9-10. They’re third in the Pacific Division. They started 0-3 for the first time since 1978. Former head coach Mike Brown was fired after the Lakers’ first five games resulted in a 1-4 record.

Needless to say, the Lakers haven’t lived up to the lofty expectations that stemmed from trades that acquired point guard Steve Nash and center Dwight Howard in the offseason.

Howard — although he claims to be fully healed from a back injury that sidelined him for the playoffs and the last month of the last year’s regular season — has looked 80 percent at best, especially on the defensive end. But at least that’s better than his abysmal free throw percentage of 47 percent, which has led teams to employ a “Hack-a-Dwight” mentality in the fourth quarter of games that allows them to rely on Howard’s misses from the charity stripe to claw back into the contest. This prompts many to ask, why not sit him more towards the end of the game?

Nash has yet to play under the man who coached him to two consecutive MVP awards with the Phoenix Suns. The 38-year-old broke a bone in his left leg against Portland in the second game of the season and hasn’t played since. The Lakers say they must wait until Nash is fully healed and allowed to mesh with the team before attempting to measure the Kobe Bryant-Howard-Nash-Pau Gasol experiment.

This allows Pau to remain in LA for at least another couple of months before General Manager Mitch Kupchak trades him for the Hornets’ Ryan Anderson — crossing my fingers — or the Raptors’ Andrea Bargnani because of his ineffectiveness in head coach Mike D’Antoni’s system.

D’Antoni was hired — much to the chagrin of the majority of Laker Nation, who preferred the legendary Phil Jackson over, well, everyone else — to replace interim head coach Bernie Bickerstaff, who filled in on the LA sideline in the wake of Brown’s firing. Bickerstaff went 4-1 in his short stint, causing more than a few — including myself — to wonder, why not stick with him?

Instead, D’Antoni has led the Lakers to just four wins in nine games. Their last three victories have come against the New Orleans Hornets, the Denver Nuggets and the Dirk Nowitzki-less Dallas Mavericks, whose combined record is an astounding 23-32. D’Antoni’s record with LA has dipped to 4-6 after the outcome of their matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder in OKC this past Friday night.

So much for 73-9, Metta World Peace.

But in a year that’s been mired in mediocrity since the beginning of the preseason, a lone bright spot remains, one that shouldn’t be tainted by the lack of success that surrounds it.

Kobe Bryant became the fifth player in NBA history to score 30,000 points, joining a very exclusive club that consists of arguably four of the top-10 players in the history of basketball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.

Four of the top-five scorers to ever put on an NBA jersey have been Lakers at one point in their careers, which is significant in itself. Kobe’s name has always been linked to the greatest names in basketball lore and it’s fitting that many of those players have also donned the purple and gold.

His place among them — and more specifically, his place next to Jordan, the greatest player of all time — has been debated more times than any other current player, including LeBron James.

The way the 17-year veteran eclipsed this scoring milestone was also quite fitting.

Bryant’s 30,001st point came in the second quarter of Wednesday’s win over the Hornets with a very Kobe-esque slash to the hoop that resulted in a high-arching floater that dropped in over big man Robin Lopez.

The five-time NBA Champion finished with 29 points on 10-17 shooting against New Orleans, but his performance was about more than just the numbers. It was symbolic of the consistency of Bryant’s entire career.

Kobe has averaged 25.4 points per game in his 17 years in the league. Discount the first two years of his career, where he played less than 27 minutes a game, and he’s never averaged fewer than 20 points a contest. He was even forced to endure the Kwame Brown-Smush Parker years. While Kwame has improved marginally since he left the Lakers in 2008, Smush will always be relevant in the “Worst Player in NBA History” discussions.

The Lakers went 121-125 in the Brown-Parker era from 2004-07, a record not exactly congruent with LA’s long-standing history of success as evidenced by their 16 NBA Titles. But while the Laker’s relative failures abounded, Kobe still cashed in, averaging 29.7 points per game in those four seasons. That is not to say Bryant’s impressive talents as a scorer outweigh the overall success of the team or the franchise; it is only to shine light on how consistent Kobe’s play has been, regardless of what has happened around him.

Don’t discount the fact that Bryant is usually among the top-five in the NBA in shot attempts at year’s end, but don’t ignore the skill and commitment it takes to show up healthy, in shape and focused year in and year out, either. Kobe’s will to win is matched by Jordan alone, something that has always set him apart from his peers.

Say what you will about Kobe being a volume scorer, a chucker, or a gunner — or any of the variety of other words that have been used to describe the 14-time All-Star over the years. But at the end of the day, it can’t be argued that there are two things Kobe will always be synonymous with: An unyielding drive to win and putting the ball in the hoop.

It is true that it took Bryant more games to reach the 30-kilometer mark than the other four did. But it is also true that Kobe is younger than Kareem, Karl, Michael or Wilt were when they scored their 30,000th, which brings to light a couple of valid points: This season marks Kobe’s 17th year in the league. He broke in at the raw age of 18 out of Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia. Bryant is now 34, which means almost half of his entire life has been spent playing professional basketball.

Yes, the fact that Kobe took the most games to eclipse this milestone is a byproduct of his propensity to shoot — and miss — quite often throughout his career. But it also shows how much mileage is on those legs and even more importantly, how much older than 34 his body really is. Bryant has squished more games into fewer years than Abdul-Jabbar, Malone, Jordan and Chamberlain did in their respective marches to 30,000 points. Kobe may have taken more games to reach it, but he also did it with many more minutes under his belt and with more strain on his body.

The Lakers might wake up. Nash may return and be the key that ignites this roster and takes it to where its talent says it can go. Nash’s reinsertion into the lineup could spark Gasol’s resurgence and make us all forget that he’s averaged the worst numbers of his career through 17 games. Gasol has missed the last two because of tendinitis in both knees.

Howard could start hitting his free throws at a higher clip. He could even get back to 100 percent health-wise, which would no doubt return him to the form that won him three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards from 2008 to 2011.

All of these things combined would most likely lead the Lakers to a top-five seed in the Western Conference playoff picture and who knows what that could lead to.

These are all big “ifs,” “coulds” and “mights.” It may be just as likely that Nash’s return doesn’t help their defensive issues or result in improvement by Gasol, and who knows if Howard will ever start making more than 50 percent of his attempts from the foul line.

In all likelihood, LA will find themselves in the playoffs whether Nash is a miracle-worker or not. They have too much talent not to at least contend for the Pacific Division crown and a playoff spot, regardless of the possibility that their chemistry woes continue, which would prevent them from clicking on all cylinders come May.

The only thing that is certain about the Lakers’ season is that most of it will be viewed with uncertainty. However, a few things will remain true: Kobe will score and shoot a lot and no one will want to win more than No. 24.

No matter how the Lakers’ season turns out, Bryant’s contributions to the game of basketball, his commitment to the Laker organization and his 30,000point milestone should never be jaded by the underachieving nature of his team.