Last spring Kobe Bryant flipped out when he learned that L.A. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak had turned down a chance to trade Andrew Bynum to the New Jersey Nets for Jason Kidd.
"Ship his (derriere) out!" Bryant said. "C'mon, Jason Kidd? Mitch Kupchak had the nerve to ask me, 'How good do you think Andrew Bynum is going to be in 10 years?' "
Now, with Bynum out until the middle of March with a subluxated knee cap, depriving the Lakers of 13 points and 10 boards on average per night, Bryant is singing a different tune.
The GM might have made a better impression on his self-absorbed star had he suggested Bynum was going to be this good, this year. Instead of wishing Bynum to be far away, Bryant has to be wishing he was still out there on the court beside him.
The Bynum-less Lakers are in town tonight for a date with the Raptors, the second game of a brutal nine-games-in-14-days trip that takes the Lakers all the way to the NBA all-star break. It is the longest trip in that well-travelled team's history.
Bryant himself probably expected to be playing somewhere else by this time after his much-publicized trade demand at the end of last season. In that regard, Kupchak is looking like a genius on two fronts because Bryant is having his typical season, averaging nearly 28 points a game, just behind league-leader LeBron James.
But it's no coincidence that the surprising Lakers have struggled since Bynum hurt his knee in a game against Memphis on Jan. 13. In the five games leading up to that one -- all L.A. wins -- Bynum had averaged 19 points and 13 rebounds and had helped power them into first place in the Western Division.
Heading into last night's game in Detroit against the Pistons, the Lakers had been struggling in Bynum's absence, winners of only two of their previous six games. After their brief sojourn at the top of the West, they've been overtaken by four teams, with five or six more nipping at their heels.
Still, Bryant is putting a brave face on things. He typically deflects conversation about the trade demand and is doing his best to be a team player.
"I just think that guys need to just relax, just go out there and play basketball and not worry about having the pressure of putting up 20 (points) and 10 (rebounds) or doing what Andrew was doing," Bryant told reporters in L.A. this week. "Just move the basketball, hit the open man and everything will be fine."
By the end of this harsh trip he could be singing a different tune but if the Lakers are able to hold things together, with Bynum back later in the season, they very likely will be a force to contend with once again.
It could help lead Bryant to an honour that has somehow eluded him: NBA MVP. Despite all the scoring, despite the 81-point game against Toronto, despite the back-to-back-to-back championship banners he and Shaq O'Neal authored, MVP honours have always gone elsewhere.
"I find it amazing he hasn't been the MVP," coach Isiah Thomas told reporters Monday while his Knicks were in L.A. "When did he have that 81-point game? (Two) years ago? That's when he should've been the MVP, on that game alone. The players in the league predominantly talk about LeBron and Kobe being 1 and 2, or 1A and 1B, in the league in terms of the best players. In my mind, the best players should be MVP."
Though there is little chance Bryant will be traded this year it doesn't mean he's a Laker for life. At the end of the 2008-09 season, he can terminate his contract, even though he will still have two years and $48.8 million US left on it, to become a free agent.
Hmmm. At the end of 2009, Bryant will still be a youthful 30 years old, a dominating force with, at this point, no signs of wearing down. The size of that next contract boggles the mind.
By the end of this season, he will have moved into the top 25 in career points, somewhere around 21,500. In another five years he'll be past the 30,000 level and looking up only at Kareem Abdul Jabbar (38,387), Karl Malone (36,928) and Michael Jordan (32,292).
That's heady territory, but not even on the horizon yet. On the immediate radar, Kobe and the Lakers have other big numbers on their minds. Like, nine cities, 14 games, 8,000-plus miles. Pass the Gravol.