x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Lakers enter new NBA season unsettled

From the NBA vetoing the acquisition of Chris Paul to Kobe Bryant's divorce to Paul eventually landing with their Staple Center roommates, the Clippers, it has been an uneasy off-season for the Lakers.

Point guard Chris Paul, left, may have enough star power to help the Clippers finally eclipse the Lakers in Los Angeles.
Point guard Chris Paul, left, may have enough star power to help the Clippers finally eclipse the Lakers in Los Angeles.

It started innocently enough, with the Los Angeles Lakers swooping as the NBA lockout ended to grab Chris Paul, adding another elite player for the enjoyment of the Hollywood A-listers sitting courtside at Staples Center.

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 Miami's collection.

Then David Stern stepped in as the Grinch who stole Christmas, vetoing the trade "for basketball reasons".

And so began a week that would make even famous Lakers fan Jack Nicholson flinch.

It ended Friday night with word that Kobe Bryant's wife had filed for divorce, adding another layer of uncertainty to a season that seems to be crumbling before it begins.

How is this for parity in the new NBA? The team that has been in three of the past four NBA finals, winning two of them, might now be the second-best team in their own arena.

The Clippers, having traded for Paul to pair with the dunking machine Blake Griffin, already own the buzz.

They might soon own the town.

"I'd definitely go watch them," Bryant said. "Blake Griffin has, like, a 60-inch vertical [leap]. 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 grumpier by the day. Odom was shipped to Dallas after the failed Paul trade and Gasol has to be wondering how long the welcome mat will remain out for him.

The veteran coach Phil Jackson is gone, too, taking his unprecedented collection of 11 NBA titles with him into retirement. There's a new offence to learn under coach Mike Brown, and only a few days to learn it before the Lakers open the season on Christmas Day against the Chicago Bulls. And there's no sign that Howard will be heading to California anytime soon.

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

Things got even messier for Lakers fans when Bryant's wife filed for divorce after a decade of marriage.

Vanessa Bryant famously stuck with her husband after he was charged with sexual assault in Colorado in 2003, and reports at the time said he bought her a US$4 million (Dh14.7m) diamond ring.

Bryant managed to play his way through those troubles, and he has the on-court focus to do the same thing with his current personal woes. But he is 33 and the wear and tear of 1,311 NBA games has taken a toll; he has had a variety of injuries the past few years.

His best years are almost surely behind him, and his ability to take over games is not what it once was.

He is not happy that Stern snatched away Paul before he could put on a Lakers uniform, and even less happy that the Lakers traded Odom to Dallas with little more than a draft pick in return.

The start of the season may reignite his fire. But the fact remains this Lakers team is a year older and not as good as the one that was embarrassed by the Mavericks in the play-offs last year, even with Ron Artest being replaced by Metta World Peace - now the legal name of the erratic Artest.

Stern deserves much of the blame for the uncertainty surrounding the Lakers. Without his interference they would be a much different team, with two superstars in the back court and more than enough money left over to help acquire Howard from Orlando.

Indeed, Stern's veto of the trade had to make Jerry Buss, the Lakers owner, apoplectic, especially after Stern approved the eventual trade to the Clippers. Stern accomplished what he wanted, which was not allowing the rich to get richer.

That was an important message to send after the 149-day lockout, but it cost the Lakers dearly - especially when Odom felt offended by being included in the aborted Paul trade and demanded to go elsewhere.

The Lakers have much to sort out, and little time to do it. The Bulls will not come bearing gifts for the Christmas Day game. And Lakers fans have to be feeling as if they just got a lump of coal in their stockings.