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The Sixth Man: Lakers' strife was predictable

Expectations in the NBA are often measured on a sliding scale.

Most clubs would consider a 19-13 record that placed them a game behind the division leaders with two days to go before the All-Star break a success. Most teams aren't the Los Angeles Lakers, however.

For the 16-time champs, it's not about being competitive or having a chance to win a division, it's all about the Lawrence O'Brien Trophy.

And it's hard to look at these Lakers and say they are a legitimate contender for the crown. Oklahoma City is far too young and talented in the West while Miami and Chicago are more well-rounded in the East.

It's more than conceivable that the Lakers could compete with just about anyone else over a seven-game span, but that's just not good enough for Kobe Bryant, perhaps the most competitive player in the game.

L.A.'s decline sped up during last season's Western Conference semifinals when the Dallas Mavericks dethroned them by sweeping them out of the playoffs, sending Phil Jackson into retirement with an emphatic 122-86 Game 4 loss.

Jackson actually foreshadowed the current strife in Hollywood when he walked away. "The ultimate winner," Jackson probably knows better than anyone what a winning environment looks like. When he called it quits, it was a direct indictment of the Lakers and their immediate future.

Since longtime owner Dr. Jerry Buss has retreated a bit from the day-to-day operations of running the club, his son Jim is now the most influential man in the organization.

The younger Buss was no fan of Jackson's perceived smugness and cleaned house in the front office once Phil left. Everything from the scouting staff to the training staff was gutted in order to put his stamp on the league's marquee team.

More unhappiness developed after the Lakers, with Buss' prodding, sent the popular Lamar Odom to Big D before this season for a song and a dance. That was just days after a proposed three-way deal that would have moved both Odom and Pau Gasol for Chris Paul fell through.

Trade rumors have continued to swirl around Gasol since and the team's cornerstone, Bryant, finally reached his boiling point after a setback in Phoenix on Sunday, ripping L.A.'s management team for allowing his teammate to twist in the wind.

"I wish management would come out and either trade him or not trade him," Bryant said when talking about Gasol. "It's tough for a player to give his all when you don't know if you're going to be here tomorrow. I'd rather them not trade him at all. If they're going to do something, I wish they would just do it."

With no Jackson on the bench and no Odom coming off it, first-year Lakers mentor Mike Brown has been able to count on just three players this season as he implements a more complicated system, Bryant and his two 7-footers, Andrew Bynum and Gasol.

The rest of the team, including battle-tested veterans Derek Fisher and Metta World Peace, has lacked consistency and offered little production.

The depth is virtually non-existent with little upside. In fact, the only young player who has even remotely stepped forward this season is rookie guard Andrew Goudelock, a College of Charleston product, who has flashed at times but has a very limited ceiling as a player.

With a stunning lack of assets to work with, it's ludicrous to think general manager Mitch Kupchak would shelve the idea of trading any commodity, never mind one of the few who others actually covet.

If a normal player spoke out of turn, Kupchak could have brushed it off, but when Bryant speaks, it might as well be an advertisement for E.F. Hutton -- when Kobe talks, people listen.

That forced Kupchak to address the situation and to his credit he was as frank and honest as any GM could be.

"As a former player, I understand how the days leading up to the trade deadline can be nerve-wracking for an NBA player," he said in a statement. "Nonetheless, as general manager of the Lakers, I have a responsibility to ownership, our fans and the players on this team to actively pursue opportunities to improve the team for this season and seasons to come.

"To say publicly that we would not do this would serve no purpose and put us at a competitive disadvantage. Taking such a course of action at this time would be a disservice to ownership, the team and our many fans."

A day can make quite a difference in someone's mood and Bryant was all smiles after scoring 28 points in Los Angeles' 103-92 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday.

Afterwards, however, Bryant and Fisher held a players-only meeting as the team looks at the daunting task of back-to-back games on the road against West powers Dallas and Oklahoma City.

In the midst of his 16th NBA season, Bryant's brilliant career is a lot closer to the finish line than the starting blocks. The fact that his future championship aspirations are in the hands of someone he simply doesn't trust is a tough thing for him to swallow.

It may have seemed like Kobe was trying to paint an "us vs. the world" scenario, but he was really trying to rally the troops to keep playing despite what he perceives as Jim Buss' mismanagement.