As they wait for NBA commissioner Adam Silver to pull the envelopes at the 2014 draft lottery, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki, repping the Lakers and Mavericks, are having a private discussion. Unbeknownst to them, their microphones are hot, so we get to eavesdrop.
Kobe: "What the hell are we doing here?"
Dirk: (shakes head) "Beats me. Still trying to figure that out myself."
Kobe: "The freakin lottery? The free-kin lottery? Mamba didn't sign up for this [bleep]." (smacks table)
Dirk: "Well, this is my second straight lottery, so spare me your pain."
Kobe: "Only reason I'm sitting up here is to change our damn luck. Jim Buss was gonna come until I said the hell with that. He hasn't won a damn thing his entire life."
Dirk: "Neither has Mark Cuban, since LeBron learned how to post up."
Kobe: "We just spent an entire season staring up in the standings at the New Orleans Picayunes --"
Dirk: "Pelicans. They're the Pelicans now."
Kobe: "Whatever. Anyway, what the hell? We lost the damn city to Donald freaking Sterling. Nash can't stay in one piece anymore. Kupchak dumps Pau at the trade deadline and the tank is on. I went to battle every night with Steve Blake. I busted my butt all last summer to hurry back from a broken Achilles, just so I could go to battle with Steve Blake."
Dirk: "I wish I had Steve Blake."
Kobe: (squints eyes, bares teeth) "Damn you, Dwight. Damn you!"
Dirk: "Hey, he dumped us before he dumped you." (curses Dwight Howard in German)
As they wind down careers that will lead to Springfield and the Hall of Fame, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki are trying not to fall off a cliff like Thelma and Louise. It's gonna to be a close call, though. Two of the best players of their generation, with over 55,000 points between them, are staring at an upcoming season that looks like a total wash, and rebuilding projects that may or may not pan out before their playing days are up.
It's a frightening reality for them. Maybe inevitable, too. Both will turn 35 before next season, which means Kobe and Dirk have, what, two more years at All-Star level? Three, tops? Does anyone see the Lakers or Mavericks, both disturbingly light on help for Kobe and Dirk, being heavyweights by then?
It's safe to say Kobe and Dirk will not get within a mile of a title this season. In that sense, because their standards are high while their tolerance for losing is low, this is sure to be a frustrating and ultimately a wasted season for two players who are on the clock. Both will be in a tough spot, trying to make something out of little, hoping to stay healthy long enough until help arrives, whenever that may be.
Last year, the Mavericks missed the playoffs for the first time since Dirk's second season, a streak of 12 straight years. Only once in Kobe's 16 years have the Lakers missed out. This is what they're up against, the spoils of winning and the idea that anything less than making the playoffs, at the very least, is failure. It's almost ... embarrassing, to players of their level.
What they share in common, besides the brick wall they're staring at, is losing Dwight Howard. When he chose the Rockets instead, it sent the Lakers and Mavericks scrambling to push the reset button, filling their rosters while keeping their cap as flexible as possible. That process essentially means sacrificing the present in order to keep fingers crossed for the future.
Caught in the middle are two franchise players entering their sunset years and wondering if they'll ever add to their ring collections.
Kobe's situation is a bit more dire. He desperately wants to match Michael Jordan's six championships, if only to enhance his legacy a notch. Bryant is coming off Achilles surgery, which will be a challenge for someone his age. And his patience will be strongly tested almost nightly because the Lakers are clearly in a holding pattern.
Losing Howard forced them to drop any idea of winning now. Quite the opposite, actually. The Lakers aren't adding any contracts longer than one year and are cutting costs; they'll amnesty Metta World Peace to save roughly $20 million (salary plus luxury tax). It's the strategy Miami used the year before getting LeBron James and Chris Bosh. The Heat surrounded Dwyane Wade with role players on short contracts and kept their cap clear. Miami made the playoffs anyway, mainly due to playing in the East.
With the 2014 draft expected to have a handful of potential franchise players, the Lakers could help themselves if they landed one, although even in their fractured state they aren't the Phoenix Suns. They won't be bad enough with Kobe to increase their lottery odds. More likely: They'll barely miss the playoffs, get the No. 1 pick anyway and have folks screaming about a conspiracy. Frozen Envelope II.
The real drama will surround Pau Gasol and if he'll finish the season with the Lakers. If they're struggling by next February, the Lakers might be better off dealing Gasol before the trade deadline. It would be so un-Laker-like to bail on the season that way, but a desperate situation sometimes calls for desperate measures.
Bryant will retire a Laker -- can't see him playing anywhere else, even if he's unhappy with the organization -- but he'll have to take far less than the $30 million he'll make this season in order to get help through free agency.
Nowitzki won his title in the nick of time, because the Mavericks have engaged in a rapid fall ever since. Rather than give contract extensions to a few key free agents on that 2011 championship team, namely Tyson Chandler, the Mavericks chose to stay flexible and make a run at Deron Williams and Howard. Well, Mark Cuban, the "player's owner," is now 0-for-2, and Nowitzki is paying the price for that.
At least he's keeping a sense of humor. After losing out on Howard, Dirk tweeted:
We worked all summer to get DH to Dallas. Welcome back to the Mavs, Devin Harris....- Dirk Nowitzki (@swish41) July 9, 2013
Nowitzki openly questioned the Mavericks' plan to re-tool so quickly after the championship but seems resigned to the situation now. With the exception of Nowitzki and Shawn Marion, that 2011 team is gutted, and probably for the better -- if the Mavericks can score big in free agency next summer.
Funny thing is, Kobe and Dirk will arm-wrestle over the same teammates next July, one year after losing out on Howard. Up for grabs might be Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and, of course, the grand prize, LeBron.
The problem is, none of the above seem anxious to leave their current teams. Which would only nudge Nowitzki and Bryant that much further away from another title.
With the growing competition in the West, the uncertainty that goes along with rebuilding, their bodies undergoing surgery recently (Nowitzki had a knee scoped last fall) and age suddenly being held against them, it sure looks like Kobe and Dirk are done winning rings. Although they might end up fighting over one title that could be well within their reach:
The winning envelope in the draft lottery?