Was it really just a year ago that the Chicago Bulls arrived at Staple Center, at the height of the Kobe Bryant trade hysteria? Feels like that was a lifetime ago! After an offseason filled with talk of a potential trade for Kobe Bryant, the Bulls arrived in Los Angeles on November 18 during their annual "circus roadtrip", amid a flurry of rumors centered on Kobe's "impending" relocation to the Windy City. It was about then that the wave finally broke.
It's been said about the stock market for years, “buy when there’s blood in the streets”. This will likely hold true in the current economic downturn as well- when there is seemingly no hope, when the outlook is the most bleak, and it looks like there is nowhere to go but over the cliff, one day, things stop getting worse. Faced with the nightmare of persistent trade demands from the best player of the post-Jordan era, the Los Angeles Lakers, and Kobe in particular, were booed off the floor following a 95-93 home loss to the Houston Rockets in their season opener. The Lakers world was in flames, and there was NO catalyst for a recovery- it was clearly the beginning of the end for Kobe Bryant with the Lakers.
Then, inexplicably, glimmers of hope began to appear. Two days after their deflating home loss against Houston, the Lakers went into Phoenix and proceeded to clobber the heavily favored Phoenix Suns by 21 points, leading by as many as 33 points in the 4 th quarter. It was a comprehensive “team” victory, with eight players finishing with at least eight points (five in double-digits), Vladimir Radmanovic led the team with 19 points (on just 8 shots!), Kobe grabbed 11 rebounds to go with his 16 points, on just 15 shot attempts, and Andrew Bynum, in just 23 minutes off the bench, began to justify the organization’s faith in him, scoring 14 points and grabbing 13 rebounds, while hitting on seven of his ten field goal attempts. It was the kind of victory that, at least temporarily, heals all wounds.
Two nights later, the Lakers looked to build on their emphatic win in Phoenix, when they faced another quality opponent, this time the Utah Jazz at home. The Lakers turned in a performance very similar to the one they’d produced against the Suns, even scoring an identical 119 points, albeit in a much closer game. Though Kobe Bryant did lead the way this time, scoring 33 points, he did so on just 19 shots, leaving plenty of opportunity for the Lakers’ suddenly intriguing supporting cast, who rose to the occasion again. Kobe led six players in double figures (and Radmanovic scored 9 points), with Derek Fisher (19) and Bynum (15 points and 9 rebounds in just 19 minutes) providing major support. However, the real catalyst in the win, which saw the Lakers trailing by a point after three quarters, was Jordan Farmar, whose stat line (12 points, 4 assists in 17 minutes) does not do justice to his impact. It was Farmar who started the fourth quarter with a rebound, and driving assist to Bynum, followed by three made field goals (one was a three-point play), and a pair of assists to Kobe and Ronny Turiaf. Maybe it was naive optimism, but it was during this that it seemed possible that “ something's happening here ”.
The Lakers won three of their next five games, but with Chicago coming to town on November 18, the trade rumors persisted, as the Bulls were included on Kobe’s short list of “acceptable destinations”, and they had several talented young players that could comprise an enticing package. The uncertainty surrounding the situation raised the level of speculation surrounding the Lakers-Bulls matchup to near-comedic levels, making the actual game an afterthought, and perhaps rightfully so, given the 106-78 thumping dished out by the Lakers. However, it was during the game that powerful messages were sent, by both sides. In yet another balanced attack, the Lakers saw six player score in double-figures, with no one scoring more than Kobe Bryant’s 18 points. Again, Bynum and Farmar played significant roles, scoring 14 points each (Bynum added 10 rebounds, Farmar had 4 rebounds, 8 assists and 3 steals), with Luke Walton, Vlad Radmanovic and Chris Mihm also scoring in double-digits. Though the Lakers’ supporting cast had been showing Kobe for two weeks that grass was not necessarily greener elsewhere, this was their moment. It was as though the Lakers’ younger players were collectively saying “Them? You’re demanding a trade so you can go play with them? ”
As for the Bulls, well, their core simply cemented in GM Mitch Kupchak’s mind why he did not want to trade Kobe Bryant, and definitely why he didn’t want to trade him for a combination of these guys! Of the Bulls’ players who’d been rumored to be part of a potential deal, the then-untouchable Luol Deng did not suit up due to a back injury, while Ben Gordon, Kirk Hinrich, Ben Wallace, Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah combined to score 37 points on 14-for-39 from the field.
In the 12 months since the Lakers and Bulls last met in L.A., the Lakers have amassed a regular-season record of 57-23, become the deepest and most talented team in the NBA, thanks to adding Pau Gasol without having to surrender any key pieces, and have made a trip to the NBA Finals, and look poised to return. On a side note- would anyone trade the Lakers supporting cast for the ENTIRE Bulls’ roster today?
And the Bulls? They’ve posted a record of 36-47 in their 83 regular season games since that night. On the bright side, they did win the one postseason competition in which they participated. Ok, so it was the draft lottery, but still!
One year ago tonight was the moment that it all hit the fan for John Paxon and the Bulls- not only had he created a massive distraction for his young players, he’d just watched the bottom fall out of the trade value of the core of his young, highly-regarded roster. Had the lucky bounce of a ping-pong ball not delivered Derrick Rose to Chicago, the mockery of John Paxson’s ineptitude and mismanagement of what was once the best stable of young talent in the NBA would now be reaching Isiah Thomas levels.