- Associated Press - Sunday, December 18, 2011

It started innocently enough, with the Los Angeles Lakers swooping in as the NBA lockout ended to grab Chris Paul and add another superstar for the beautiful people sitting courtside at Staples Center to enjoy.

Nothing new there. Just the Lakers being the Lakers, eager to make amends for the first NBA Finals they missed in four years. Word was they might even land Dwight Howard, giving them a trio of stars to rival even the biggest stars in Miami.

Then David Stern stepped in as the Grinch who stole Christmas. And so began a week that would make even Jack Nicholson flinch.

It ended Friday night with news out of the Southland that was far more shocking than it would have been eight years ago. Kobe Bryant’s wife filed for divorce, adding another layer of uncertainty to a season that seems to be crumbling even before it begins.

How’s this for parity in the new NBA? The team that has been in three of the last four NBA finals - winning two of them - might now be the second best team in its own arena.

The Clippers - with Paul now in their backcourt and Blake Griffin with his spectacular dunks - already own the buzz. They might soon own the town.

“I’d definitely go watch them,” Bryant said the other day. “Blake Griffin has, like, a 60-inch vertical. Chris is vastly entertaining. For sure, I’d go check them out. They’re a team with a high motor. They’re young, and they run up and down the floor.”

The Lakers, of course, were that kind of team - and it wasn’t so long ago. No one was more entertaining than Bryant, Lamar Odom was the best player in the league coming off the bench, and Pau Gasol gave them an inside-outside game that was hard to shut down.

But Bryant is now in his 16th year, and growing increasingly grumpy by the day. Odom was unceremoniously shipped to Dallas in the wake of the failed Paul trade, and Gasol has to be wondering how long the welcome mat will remain out for him.

Phil Jackson is gone, too, taking his special courtside chair and his collection of NBA titles with him. There’s a new offense to learn under Mike Brown, and only a few days to learn it before the Lakers open the season Christmas Day against the Chicago Bulls.

And there’s no sign Howard will be heading to the West Coast anytime soon.

“I’ve never quite seen something like this unfold,” Bryant said. “It’s kind of become somewhat of a mess.”

Things got even messier for Lakers fans when Bryant’s wife filed for divorce after a decade of marriage. Vanessa Bryant famously stuck with her husband after he was charged with sexual assault in Colorado in 2003, and reports at the time said he bought her a $4 million diamond ring.

Bryant managed to play his way through those troubles, and he’s got the on-court focus to do the same thing with his current personal woes. But he’s now 33, and the wear and tear of so many NBA seasons has taken its toll in a variety of injuries the past few years. His best years are almost surely behind him, and his ability to take over games almost at will is not what it once was.



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