Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol ended the 2000s the same way it began: with a Los Angeles Lakers championship.
Winning. That’s what Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers accustomed their fanbase to at the beginning of the decade. LA steamrolled teams and at their peak were a truly unstoppable team. The only way they could be defeated was by waiting them out or by hoping they would self destruct.
In the end, what led to the end of the dynasty was a combination of both. Shaq got traded to Miami and Kobe was left as the unquestionable leader of the Lakers.
During his first three years as their leader, Kobe Bryant dazzled fans with his incredible scoring displays and tremendous showings of grit and determination. The Mamba Mentality inspired fans around the world (myself included) and Bryant became an icon on and off the court. His teammates, however, weren’t exactly very inspiring.
The Lakers missed the playoffs in their first season post-Shaq. Kobe played well, but the team as a whole took a major step back. The 2004-05 Lakers had the worst defense in the league which was a huge drop off after finishing with the 8th best defense during the previous season.
The next season saw the return of a familiar face. After taking a year off, Phil Jackson came back to the sidelines as the Lakers head coach. Jackson came back with the hopes of establishing this team as a winner and they kind of did. The Purple and Gold made the playoffs albeit behind a historic scoring season from the Mamba.
Up until James Harden and Russell Westbrook came and shattered it, Kobe held the record for the highest usage rate for a season in NBA history. This was mostly out of necessity as this team lacked scoring outside of Bryant.
For context, Lamar Odom was the second-leading scorer on this team at 14.8ppg (Bryant averaged 35.4ppg). In order for this team to even have a chance, Kobe had to play at a historic level. I’m not saying that they’re the same caliber of player, but if you’re looking for a modern-day comparison look no further than Russell Westbrook’s 2017 season (which broke Kobe’s usage rate record).
Some say that Kobe’s efforts during the 2005-06 season should’ve been rewarded with the same award Russ won for his similar efforts: MVP. Here’s a small trip down memory lane where you can see just how brilliant Kobe was during the season:
For the 2006-07 season, Kobe and the Lakers had mostly an encore of the previous season, but a bit worse. Think of it as any of the Fast & Furious films after Fast Five, mediocre but not bad enough to be called terrible (The Fate of the Furious IS a terrible movie though).
All jokes aside, the Lakers once again slipped on defense. This time though they went from mediocre to terrible, going from 15th to 24th in defensive rating (105 rating to 108). The Lakers were eliminated by the Suns in the first round and that was that.
After yet another disappointing season, the Lakers were at a crossroads with their superstar. He was arguably the best player in the league and the last three seasons were a waste of his prime. Something had to be done. Enter Pau Gasol.
Midway through the 2007-08 season, the Lakers completed a trade that changed their fortunes for the better. With Gasol in tow and with the other pieces around them like Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom, Los Angeles snatched the #1 seed in the West for the first time since 2000.
Kobe Bryant was named MVP for his stellar efforts and Gasol gelled very well with the team. Finally, Kobe had found the Robin to his Batman and that was all he needed. Or so we thought. The Lakers went back to the Finals after a 4-year absence and faced their long time rival, the Boston Celtics for the first time since 1987.
Unfortunately, the Lakers ended up losing in 6 and their title drought continued. The best was yet to come.
Entering the 2008-09 season the Lakers had something they didn’t have in a long time: championship aspirations. Gasol was now able to play a full season with the Lakers and it showed.
The Purple and Gold won 65 games that season and earned the #1 seed once again. This season was the best overall season that both players had as a duo. Kobe Bryant earned All-NBA First Team honors as well as a spot on the All-Defensive First Team. Pau was named to the All-NBA Third team as well as an All-Star alongside Kobe. Let’s see their stats for the regular-season.
- Kobe: 26.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.9 apg while shooting 46.7/35.1/85.6
- Pau: 18.9 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 3.5 apg while shooting 56.7/0/78
LA defeated the Deron Williams-led Utah Jazz in five, ground out a tough seven-game victory over Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets, dispatched Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets in six, and beat Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic in five games.
Following 4 years of heartbreak, disappointment, and frustration, Kobe had silenced critics once and for all. Nobody could tell him that he couldn’t win without Shaq. In fact, he finished with one more ring. How’s that for an answer?
The Mamba prevailed with the Spaniard helping along the way. Kobe and Pau ended up winning two rings together. The last one coming at the expense of the Boston Celtics. There was no better way to end the decade and start a new one.
This duo will always have a special place in our hearts. Mamba forever.