OAKLAND, Calif. — This is how it will be until Kobe Bryant reroutes the storyline.
When the Lakers win without him, there’s pleasant surprise.
When the Lakers lose without him, another chunk of the Lakers’ regime crumbles, and it’s a preview of the end of the world as we know it.
Not only did the Lakers get drubbed 125-94 by the Warriors on Wednesday night—the confidence-lacking squad settling for already having won one of their tough first two games—but the Kobe hypotheticals were especially relevant in two ways.
Time Warner Cable SportsNet, the Lakers’ regional network, aired an interview with Bryant in which he looked down the road and put it bluntly:
Bryant’s mortality also became suddenly and starkly real in a magnificent new TNT promotional video that takes actual NBA footage and uses creative liberties to show all sorts of hypothetical scenarios in this new NBA season. “I don’t have much left anymore,” Bryant says slowly in the spliced-up video, sitting glumly at a news conference table. “It’s time to, you know, retire.”
Near the end of the video is a panoramic shot of Staples Center and the Lakers’ NBA championship banners…with a new Clippers 2013-14 NBA championship banner sweeping through the forefront. There is also a speculative shot of a 2013-14 NBA championship banner up in Oracle Arena for the Warriors.
Here on the West Coast, it’s absolutely true that those two teams are angled to pounce if the Lakers’ popularity wanes, as it surely will to some extent if Bryant can’t return to form.
The Lakers stunned the Clippers before losing to the Warriors, and the latter two teams now meet Thursday night at Staples Center to complete an incestuous start to the NBA schedule.
The Clippers got more preseason hype even though the Warriors were the ones to make it out of the first round last postseason. You can make cases for each team having so much to work with that they are credible championship threats right now.
One of the major developments of the preseason was new Clippers coach Doc Rivers’ decision to cover up the Lakers’ championship banners in Staples Center with Clippers player posters at home games. Rivers has tried to explain that it’s not as much about the Lakers as it is about the Clippers.
“I just want to make this our arena,” Rivers said before losing the designated Lakers home game Tuesday night. “It was about: ‘We’re the Clippers. It should be our arena.’”
Rivers means it should be their arena when it’s a Clippers home game, as it will be Thursday night against the Warriors. The idea of Clippers fans filling Staples Center for a Lakers home game remains so far off the grid that no one could even conceive of it.
But it was noticeable just how few Lakers fans were at Oracle Arena on Wednesday night. When these two teams met in years past, the place was nearly half Lakers backers, but that wasn’t the case for Golden State’s opening night this season.
And the Warriors gave their fans quite a show, not just in annihilating the Lakers, but with cool pregame introductions of the whole team—with the starting five hidden at midcourt by a huge white tent connected to the overhead scoreboard. Then at the end, the starters were dramatically unveiled with the curtain going up, not unlike the pregame video with broad white background that the Lakers have long done at Staples.
“We were having a blast,” Stephen Curry said. “Guys were breakdancing, doing plyometrics. We didn’t know if anybody could see us.”
Warriors coach Mark Jackson went out of his way to praise the club for the Hollywood-style opening presentation, saying, “It was first class and how big-time organizations do it.”
Even if Jackson's postgame news conference Wednesday looked a little small-time—they still had a bunch of fans, along with team co-owner Joe Lacob, blending in with the media—the Warriors clearly have a plan to become a big-time organization.
Inside the Warriors locker room, the message is posted: “mUSt be jUSt about US.” But Lacob has made clear from the beginning that he wants to build the Warriors into a Northern California version of the Lakers, with all their flash and renown.
Golden State's other co-owner, Peter Guber, is a movie producer who joined forces with Magic Johnson to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers last year. Guber brought Fast & Furious director Justin Lin along with the Warriors on their preseason trip to China. Guber sat alongside actor Chris Tucker at the game Wednesday night and had Tucker tweet out a photo with the Warriors from the locker room.
And as cool as the 39 consecutive sellouts are and as convincing as this largest victory over the Lakers in 19 years was, the Warriors’ real game-changer is coming in 2017.
That’s when the team moves from Oakland to San Francisco and ascends to the official status of big-market player. The artistic rendering is already set: Curry on a workout machine, gazing through glistening glass, with the sparkling ocean water and newly built Bay Bridge making up the most scenic view in all of sports.