It's just mind-boggling that it's come to this for the mighty, dynastic, iconic Los Angeles Lakers. The Purple & Gold. Showtime. 16 Larry O' Briens in the trophy case. From Mikan to Baylor to Wilt and West, Magic and Kareem to Shaq and Kobe to.... this.
It just makes you shake your head, man. I have no love for the Lakers at all, and lord knows all their troubles are of their own making, but it's still sad. Say what you want about what a miserable season Kobe Bryant was having, how he seemed oblivious to the fact that he was the butt of every NBA Twitter joke, how he was the basketball version of Willie Mays bumbling around in the outfield in his 40's for the Mets, but at least Kobe made the Lakers morbidly interesting, even if we were all rubbernecking the car crash or worse, laughing at the attention-addict reality TV star.
Without Kobe though, what are the Lakers? If this was the NFL they'd be the Jets. If this was baseball they'd be the Reds. If this was English soccer they'd be... hell they might be Leeds. A once great franchise now turned into a national joke and a cautionary tale for the Chelseas and Manchester Uniteds. There but for the grace of God...
In a way, they're a cautionary tale for the Spurs too, the Goofus to our Gallant, so to speak. Their star alienated his teammates and coach to the point of making them want out at times, our star never has. Their star played too many minutes for too many years, where now they've finally caught up with him, our star has always played fewer minutes to preserve himself for the long term. Their star took all the money, our star took less so that he could surround himself with talented guys he could win with. It may be painting Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan with too broad a brush, but it's certainly not a coincidence or a surprise that Bryant has reached this sad end while Duncan just keeps on, keeping on, at times the best Spur, still, but other times just a role player content to catch a ride on the meteor that is Kawhi Leonard.
I'm not sure if it's a Your Three Stars record or not, but Leonard has now been the first star for five straight games, which also happen to be exactly how many the team has played since he's returned from a torn ligament injury in his right (shooting) hand that kept him out for 15 games and 17 of 19.
Leonard has hardly missed a beat since returning, scoring at least 12 points in all five games and averaging 16 to go with 9.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.8 steals in that stretch. He led the team with 33:18 of playing time against the Lakers and seemed not at all bothered on the second night of a back-to-back nor burdened by the responsibility of having to be the team's most consistent, most reliable, most indispensable player, from the moment he stepped back on the court after missing a month.
"I'm young," Leonard explained, matter-of-factly. "I'm 23-years-old. I love to play the game. Every game I have the same mindset. If Kobe was here, that would be somebody else I would have to stop from scoring."
That the jersey or the opponent in front of him or the importance of the game doesn't matter at all to Leonard is either a sign he's mature well beyond his years or blissfully full of hubris, but either way it's served him well so far and it fits the team's ethos.
Of course the beauty of the Spurs is that even though it has been the Leonard show lately, it doesn't have to be. It could just as easily be Duncan with a quiet and steady 14 and 7 in 20 minutes or Manu Ginobili with a bounce-back 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting, frolicking merrily to the lane with no one in black and gold (don't ask) all that interested in deterring him. It could be Tony Parker rediscovering his mid-range jumper or Patty Mills burying the dagger three after swiping a trademark in-bounds steal. It could be any of these things and more and Friday night it was all of them.
Meanwhile, the Lakers, the Kobe-less Lakers, whom their current best player (because by definition someone has to be) Nick Young likened to the title character in Django Unchained for how free they felt playing without the restraints of Bryant's on court tyranny, have to make a go of it with "Swaggy P," yes and also Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill and Wesley Johnson, Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre, Wayne Ellington and so on.
Their hot topics du jour, aside from the announcement of Bryant's season has come to a premature end for the third consecutive season, are that A) Jeremy Lin (DNP-CD vs. the Spurs) is in Byron Scott's dog house for reasons that should interest no one and B) San Antonio native Jordan Clarkson was to make his first career start, and at the Spurs no less.
All things considered, he was probably the best Laker on Friday, making 5-of-9 shots and finishing with 11 points and four assists. ("I was excited to be able to play here in front of my friends and family," Clarkson said afterward.)
His presence also led to this, which was nice.
You wonder how long Lakers fans will have to sing "Since U Been Gone," about Kobe because barring some Duncan-esque lottery luck, they are going to be terrible for a long, long time. And even worse than terrible, just plain irrelevant.
Your Three Stars:
3. Tony Parker (40 pts)
2. Manu Ginobili (52 pts)
1. Kawhi Leonard (60 pts)