Philadelphia, PA – For the first time you can make a very headed stepchild across the hall at Staples Center has more star power than the mighty Lakers.
History and tradition still mean something and the Lakers will always play the role of big brother to the Clips, sort of like the Yankees, who own the backpage of New York's tabloids no matter what the Mets do.
But, occasionally the lesser sibling can rise up and best big bro. Think the Darryl Strawberry/Doc Gooden-era in Queens.
It's far too early to crown the Clippers in the Pacific but we are now past the one-third mark of the season and it's the Clips standing atop the division, not the Lakers.
Kobe Bryant is still the best player to call Staples Center home and he arrived in his hometown of Philadelphia on Monday night 23 points shy of tying former teammate and nemesis Shaquille O'Neal (28,596 points) for fifth on the NBA's all-time scoring list.
He passed Shaq midway through the second quarter making shot after shot with a degree of difficultly that would make an Olympic gymnast blush before Doug Collins decided to challenge his entire supporting cast in what turned out to be a 95-90 Sixers win.
Collins ran the Army, Navy and Marines at Kobe every time he touched the basketball and to his credit, Bryant did what you are supposed to do -- move the ball. The Lakers got a ton of open looks and made some but missed more than their share.
By the fourth quarter Kobe's legs were gone and the amazing fadeaways started to miss their mark. In the 25th game of the season John Kuester, who was piloting the team for a suspended Mike Brown, played Bryant 44 minutes and did not sit him at all in the second half. The result was a 1-for-10 fourth quarter as the dogged defense of Andre Iguodala and friends finally took its toll.
"They just came after him immediately," Kuester said after the game, "and to Kobe's credit, what he did was try to get everyone involved. We had some great hits. When you are coming down to the end of the game, your margin of error is very small, and you have to take advantage of that. Things just didn't go our way."
Talk about a lack of foresight -- remember as impressive as the milestone that Bryant passed tonight is, it's also a stark reminder that he is a lot closer to the end than the beginning.
Whether there is enough tread left on the 33-year-old Bryant's tires to carry a flawed team on his back to another significant postseason run is up for debate.
He's obviously still one of the top players in the game, averaging a league- best 29.4 ppg coming into tonight's contest despite playing with a torn lunotriquetral ligament in his right wrist. But something is missing with these Lakers -- even with Bryant. The same air of invincibility is simply not there.
The Lakers certainly aren't the Washington Generals either but they no longer pack the kind of punch that scares anyone. The fact that the team is just 3-9 on the road should tell you all that you need to know.
"I think we just need to relax," Metta World Peace said. "When you've got guys like Fish [Derek Fisher] and Kobe, we need to get on their level and not worry. Late in the fourth quarter we need to stay consistent and relax, and everything will be alright."
Way too rosy an outlook if you ask me.
Brown has only been able to count on three players this season as he implements a more defensive-minded system, Bryant and his two 7-footers, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. The rest of the team including battle-tested veterans Fisher and World Peace, has lacked consistency and offered little production.
Tonight, Philadelphia's bench featuring big-time contributors like Lou Williams, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young outscored the Lakers by a 49-16 margin. A well-rested Williams was Kobe-like in the fourth, netting 14 points and exploding in the last 3 1/2 minutes.
The only young player that has stepped forward for LA this season is rookie guard Andrew Goudelock, a College of Charleston product that has flashed at times but has a very limited ceiling as a player.
Like an aging but proud boxing champ, the Lakers still have a right hook that can quiver the liver and send just about anyone to the deck.
They showed that by opening their current six-game Grammy trip but beating a far-deeper Denver Nuggets team in the Rockies. A day later, however, Utah was waiting to take advantage and did exactly that, topping the Lakers 96-87 despite 26 points Bryant, 24 points and 16 rebounds from Gasol and 21 points and 12 boards from Bynum. The rest of the Lakers' team scored a paltry 16 points in Salt Lake City on 6-of-24 shooting.
They showed it again in the first half tonight when Bryant scored 24 and Bynum dominated the boards. But the fact that Kuester or Brown can't turn around and point to someone, anyone to give Bryant a breather for three or four minutes in the second half of a tightly contested game speaks volumes. The trust is simply not there.
"It is pretty basic," World Peace said. "I didn't think we need to change much. We have the guys to finish games. Right now, there is not a lot of consistency, so once we start playing with a little more consistency , we will win more consistently."
Perhaps but the Lakers lack of athleticism is glaring. LA had just two fast break points against the Sixers and forced only four turnovers.
Jackson foreshadowed these type of struggles when he walked away after last season. The former Lakers' mentor, of course, had collected championship rings at an unprecedented pace during his career, winning two in New York during the early 1970s as a player, garnering six more in Chicago with Michael Jordan and adding an additional five during the Kobe-era in LA.
"The ultimate winner," Jackson knows better than anyone what a winning environment looks like and when he retired after his club was run off by the Dallas Mavericks last season, it was an indictment of the organization and it's immediate future.
You can believe Jackson was burned out or the back problems had finally gotten to him if you want but Phil wasn't going anywhere if he thought the 2011-12 Lakers had a legitimate chance to bounce back and win another title. His ego would have liked to have put more distance between himself and Bill Russell as well as Red Auerbach.
The organization itself also flashed warning signs when it put together a high-profile deal to acquire Paul, one that would have sent both Odom and Gasol out of town before it was nixed by the NBA.
Yep, even the Lakers don't believe their contenders -- just don't tell Kobe.