Lakers star Kobe Bryant has yet to return to form since hitting the court… (Nikki Boertman / McClatchy-Tribune )
Kobe Bryant has this thing he does, just when the Lakers are moments from being flattened by an oncoming train, he smiles and says, "What whistle?"
Call it the no-look quote.
Bryant has been doing this for years, his normal confidence level going into beast mode whenever his team is truly in peril. The swagger he brings into the final minutes of a game is wildly heightened when his team is in the final minutes before a meltdown.
In Bryant's world, it's always dawn before the darkest.
In the real world, of course, if there is a whistle, that train is real, and hopes will be crushed, and thus there is always one way to confirm the Lakers are in serious trouble, and that's when Kobe Bryant says they are not.
Remember last season, in December, when a loss in Oklahoma City dropped the all-star roster to 9-11 and Bryant was asked if he still thought they could win a championship?
"It doesn't seem like it, but I do. I do," he said. "I think we have to shore up a few areas execution-wise, but I think we'll be fine."
They promptly lost 10 of their next 16 games and were never fine.
Two seasons ago they were one loss from being knocked out of the postseason by Oklahoma City, and there was Bryant again, claiming nobody was the least bit shaken by the Thunder.
"We're all upset and extremely frustrated, [but] I don't think anybody is worried about going into Oklahoma City and getting a win," he said.
Two days later, they went into Oklahoma City and were walloped by 16, ending their season.
Remember in 2011 when the Lakers trailed Dallas three games to none in their second-round series?
"I might be sick in the head or crazy because I think we're still going to win the series," Bryant said.
Two days later the Lakers were swept into the summer with a 36-point loss.
Bryant, bless his impenetrable heart, was it again this week when he was asked about a team that has lost its bounce since he and his repaired Achilles' tendon joined it.
The Lakers have been stripped of the confidence they built when they were 10-9 without him. Where they were once playing freely, now they are fidgeting. Where they were once embracing the big moments, they are once again watching the big moments. Like a cocky teen whose older brother just returned from college for Christmas break, the Lakers seem like strangers in their own house.
All of which led to a Bryant quote that pretty much dooms everything.
"Last year was really, really dire straits. It doesn't feel like it's that type of situation here," he told reporters this week. "I don't really sweat it too much. There's certain things that we can correct and fix."
Wait, last year with Dwight Howard was dire straits? Hmm. Now he tells us.
In his own odd way, Bryant is confirming what everyone can see. The Lakers were not a playoff team when their best player was missing, yet now that he's back, they're still not a playoff team. Their point guards will return from injury, they will eventually figure how to play with Bryant, but that probably won't be enough to raise them much above .500, so, no, there are certain things that cannot be corrected or fixed.
They can't correct the fact that they are destined for mediocrity. And they can't fix the fact that in the NBA, mediocrity is death.
Mediocrity is first-round playoff exits with little chance to improve with the draft. Mediocrity is Utah one year, Milwaukee the next, teams that are just good enough to never really get better.
Thanks to Jim Buss' decision to show loyalty to Bryant at the expense of being loyal to the increasingly detached paying customers, the Lakers are probably headed for 2 1/2 more seasons of mediocrity unless something happens.
That something might have been set in motion last week when Pau Gasol finally openly expressed his discontent in this column space. This attitude has the Lakers seriously thinking about trading him. He played well enough against an injury-depleted Memphis team Tuesday night that perhaps the Grizzlies would want to bring him back home.
That trade would be important not for what they would gain — draft picks, hopefully — but for what they would lose.
They would lose more games. They could potentially fall out of the bleakness of mediocrity and into the richness of the lottery. They could give themselves a chance to find Bryant's eventual replacement and move strongly toward the future instead of treading water for what appears to be an endless present.
In Bryant's world, these Lakers are going to get a lot better. In the real world, it won't happen until they get a lot worse.