Bryant effectively shows what could have been to the Bulls
This would have been Kobe Bryant's homecoming, had the rumors that peaked a few weeks ago become reality and the Los Angeles Lakers had dealt Kobe Bryant to the Chicago Bulls for a package of somebodies, maybes and whatever else might make the dollars balance, if not the exchange of talent.
Every Los Angeles Lakers game has plots and subplots galore, but Sunday's plot twist was almost stranger than truth.
Here was Kobe Bryant, who has not publicly rescinded the trade request he made last summer, facing the team he reportedly was willing to leave the Los Angeles Lakers to join.
Would he sulk over not having been traded?
Or would he be especially assertive and try to show the Bulls what they missed out on when their trade talks with the Los Angeles Lakers fizzled?
The conclusion became obvious in the first 7 minutes 13 seconds of the third quarter, when Kobe Bryant outscored the Bulls, 9-2.
Kobe Bryant finished with a team-high 18 points and had three assists and five rebounds in 32 minutes as the Los Angeles Lakers rode a 61-point second half to a 106-78 win over the Luol Deng-less Bulls. Kobe Bryant left Staples Center as he entered it -- a member of the Los Angeles Lakers for now and for the foreseeable future.
He still may be dealt at the trade deadline or next summer, but the immediate chances of a deal between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Bulls have evaporated.
"It's over. It's dead. Dead story," Bulls Coach Scott Skiles said.
Kobe Bryant may come to realize that not being traded to Chicago -- or anywhere else -- is the best thing that could have happened to him.
Where else could he go and have a better chance to win another title after his new team trades its top players to get him?
His best chance to win a championship this season may be to stay here, to play as he has been playing, to let the newly confident and productive bench give him a rest and preserve some of the spring in his aging legs.
The evolution and effectiveness of the bench "helps tremendously," said Lamar Odom, who scored nine points in just over 35 minutes.
"And it really helps, of course, Kobe and myself. The last two years I've played a lot of minutes and Kobe has been playing deep in the playoffs for years. It helps when these guys can step up."
Although every indication is that Kobe Bryant still wants out, his teammates are glad he's still here and that all the rumors were just talk.
"You know, it was getting a little hectic there for a while," said Luke Walton, one of five Los Angeles Lakers reserves who reached double figures in points.
"I mean, the way the team's playing right now and the way he's playing right now, I think there's no one in the organization who's not happy he's still with the team."
The Los Angeles Lakers are not going to trade him to another team in the West.
To get Kobe Bryant, the Bulls reportedly would have had to deal Deng, and/or forward Tyrus Thomas, guard Ben Gordon and rookie big man Joakim Noah. Ben Wallace's name showed up at various stages, too, and none of it came to fruition.
"It was talked about incessantly for two or three weeks amongst everyone," Skiles said. "We talked about it all the time with the team and we haven't talked about it in several days now."
Any other East team with enough assets to interest Kobe Bryant in waiving his no-trade clause would have to give up a good chunk of those assets to get him. Then, he'd be no closer to a championship than he is here, now, with the Los Angeles Lakers off to a 6-3 start that includes victories over Phoenix, Utah, Houston, Detroit and Chicago.
"I don't see why we can't win with the talent we have," Walton said.
"There's a lot of good teams in the NBA right now, especially in the West, but no one that we feel we can't compete with. I don't see why we can't get something done here."
Kobe Bryant was far more cautious in his outlook, as he has been in times of prosperity and famine.
He praised the chemistry of the bench players and lauded the team's overall defensive effort in holding an opponent under 100 points for the sixth time in nine games but was hesitant to say how far that might carry them.
"I don't know," he said. "For us, it just depends on staying healthy and continuing to stay focused. You can't get too excited. We had a tough schedule to start the season and still do and we managed to keep our heads above water to this point.
"We can't get excited about it. It's early, still early in the season. We have to stay focused and that's my job, to keep us focused and continue to move forward."
They weren't focused during training camp, as Coach Phil Jackson acknowledged before the game in saying that the trade rumors adversely affected the younger players.
It was, he said, "the insecurity not of a trade so much as of the lack of affection or lack of interest Kobe had for a period of time at the end of camp, a period of time five days or so. They went through a little lull. 'Is he with us or is he not?' "
Kobe Bryant is with them now. For how much longer, it's impossible to say. But his best chance to win, like it or not, is here.