If the Lakers fail to make the playoffs, then Duke's Jabari Parker,… (Associated Press and Getty…)
In this most conflicted of Lakers seasons, it figures that the common reaction to Kobe Bryant's imminent and inspirational return is actually two reactions.
Upon hearing the news: Yes! This means they have a chance to make the playoffs!
Ten minutes later: No! This means they have a chance to make the playoffs!
It has never been tougher being a Lakers fan, enduring two disparate seasons within one season, rooting for two different objectives within one organization, the vocal cords paralyzed by the confusion.
Lakers games have been accompanied by record-low buzz — they failed to sell out Staples Center recently for the first time in nearly seven seasons — perhaps because fans just aren't sure what to say.
When you watch the Lakers, it is impossible not to applaud the collective effort of a group with constant hustle and cohesive chemistry. But after the game, it is easy to look at the standings and think, wouldn't it be better if they lost?
You jump off the couch to cheer Steve Blake's last-second shot to beat the Houston Rockets. But then the buzzer sounds, and you sink back into the couch with the realization that the shot could eventually cost the Lakers a much bigger victory next summer.
Bryant probably won't be the same explosive player when he returns from a torn Achilles' tendon, but he should still be good enough to lead the Lakers from their current 12th conference seed into seventh or eighth place and a first-round matchup against a West powerhouse.
But is that a better fate than missing the playoffs entirely, entering the NBA lottery and having a chance at beginning the inevitable rebuilding process by adding a young star from arguably the best draft class in decades?
Do you want to cheer the Lakers to an early-May season-ending loss in Oklahoma City? Or do you want to cheer the Lakers to a late-June acquisition of someone like Duke's Jabari Parker, Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, Kansas' Andrew Wiggins, Kentucky's Julius Randle, Arizona's Aaron Gordon … the list goes on.
Watch the Lakers one night, then witness the awe-inspiring ability of some of these college kids the next couple of nights, and you'll see the conflict. For the Lakers to be great again, they might have to be terrible again. What is a fan to do?
So far, it seems reasonable and fair to cheer for one thing, yet hope for something else.
Cheer for them to win every game, because that's what Lakers fans do, and how Lakers players play. The Lakers aren't going to tank. That's not who they are or, let's hope, who they will ever be. Losing games intentionally would be an insult to Jerry Buss' legacy and would run completely against General Manager Mitch Kupchak's makeup.
Besides, the tenuous individual situations of the coach and the players would make it nonsensical to tank. Mike D'Antoni is coaching to keep his job. All but three players are playing for new contracts. Few are thinking about the Lakers beyond April, and this includes Kobe Bryant, who has an expiring contract but will remain here for less money if he thinks it will enhance his footprint on Lakers history.
Yes, a hotshot draft pick could be just what Bryant needs to help lead this team to one more championship, but forget it. Bryant is the anti-tank. Instead of sitting out a couple more months and letting his team assure itself of a lottery pick, Bryant is coming back surprisingly early and with the usual smoke in his sneakers.
It's cool to cheer for the continuation of the Lakers' competitive culture, to applaud this unlikeliest of journeys. But it's also fair to occasionally close your eyes and hope for a different sort of destination.
It was once thought the salve would be free agency, but it turns out LeBron James isn't walking through that door, and you probably don't want Carmelo Anthony, so who does that leave? Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay and Luol Deng would be nice complementary players, but do you build your future around them? Kevin Love is perfect, but he would still be one season from freedom.
This leaves the 2014 draft, and even though the club hasn't had a first-round pick in nearly seven years, their illustrious history was built on draft picks. Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and James Worthy were draft picks. Even Jim Buss had some success in the draft, as he was the official who urged the first-round selection of Andrew Bynum as the 10th overall pick in 2005.
The Lakers know drafts. And even if they weren't one of a handful of the league's worst teams, it would not be unprecedented for them to get the first overall pick. The Chicago Bulls had the ninth-worst record in 2008 and picked Derrick Rose first.
In their current position as the 13th-worst team in the league, the Lakers would have just a .009 chance or less at getting one of the first three picks. But at least they would have a shot, one that might even be greatly improved if the NBA decided to show real remorse for Commissioner David Stern's mishandling of the Chris Paul trade and slip them a few extra ping-pong balls.
Seriously, even if the Lakers drafted 13th, they've rebuilt in that fashion before, in 1996, when they made a trade and ordered their trading partner to take a certain high school kid as the 13th overall pick and send him to Los Angeles to lay the foundation for a new era.
That kid's name, of course, was Kobe Bryant.