— Mount Etna in Sicily is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. During 2011 alone, it erupted 18 times. By contrast, Mount Fuji in Japan has not erupted since 1707, although scientists still fret over the possibility.
Then there is Mount Kobe. It last spewed in May 2007, sending the population fleeing. The devastation lasted until February 2008, right around the time rescuer Pau Gasol landed in Los Angeles. Since then, citizens have enjoyed a period of relative calm, due in part to three trips to the NBA Finals and two titles. But always, they keep their eyes directed toward that volatile mouth, and the ruination it threatens.
The Kobe Bryant of today is a lot different that the one back then. He is older, wiser, more mature, more patient. He recently declared that he is a Laker for the duration, and would not seek a trade, whether his team is championship caliber or not. For those who cast wary glances at Mount Kobe, there is relief mixed with disbelief. His statement is almost like a politician saying he won’t be influenced by lobbyists anymore.
But he’s got to blow his top sometime, doesn’t he? The lack of incendiary activity around No. 24 defies all tenets of volcanology. In fact, it feels as though the longer he appears to be dormant the more powerful the event will be when it happens.
Kobe’s Lakers are 14-11, heading into Thursday’s battle in Boston against the archrival Celtics. They are tied for sixth place in the Western Conference along with Houston and Portland. In short, they’re ordinary. Middling. Unremarkable. Fair.
In Los Angeles, that’s excruciating enough. But the Lakers’ predicament is worsened by the Clippers’ improvement. The Clips are 15-7 and in first place in the Pacific Division. Plus, they have Chris Paul and the Lakers don’t, having been jilted by David Stern.
Kobe likes carrying the team on his back. He’s used to that. But now he’s doing it at age 33, in his 16th NBA season, with a torn ligament in his right (shooting) wrist, and on a right knee that he hasn’t complained about this season but last year described it as “bone on bone.” He’s averaging just over 38 minutes a game.
He’s getting some help, but not nearly enough. In a 95-90 loss Monday in Philadelphia, for example, the Lakers’ bench contributed a total of 16 points compared to 49 for the 76ers' reserves, and starters Metta World Peace and Derek Fisher combined for 10 points. Bryant played 44 minutes, took 26 shots and scored 28 points.
Even those with a rudimentary knowledge of science would conclude that such an unnatural buildup of pressure will eventually cause Mount Kobe to explode.
But there’s more. The Lakers don’t have much in the way of deal-worthy pieces, so if they do hunt down and bag a Dwight Howard, a Deron Williams or some other younger star, they’ll have to offer Gasol, or center Andrew Bynum or both. Whatever they do, it’s unlikely to elevate them to favorite status; they’ll probably have to build over the next couple of years to get there — as Kobe gets older, and his skills diminish.
There are reports that the club is thinking about free agent Gilbert Arenas, or Cleveland point guard Ramon Sessions. General manager Mitch Kupchak has been working the phones like a telemarketer, but the outcome hasn’t exactly been game-changing.
And, of course, there is Mike Brown, the coach who took over for Phil Jackson. It appears things between Brown and Bryant are copacetic for now. But if the offense continues to sputter — the Lakers have scored 100 or more points only three times in 25 games this season — you might start to see steam and hot ash billowing out from the team’s huddle.
Given what we know about Kobe, how much more can he take?
Right now superstar, coach and others around the team are insisting that the parts are already in place for a viable attempt at a championship. Yet they all acknowledge that the margin of error is tiny. A healthy Steve Blake, for instance, would be extremely helpful; the sharpshooting guard has been out since Jan. 10 with fractured cartilage in his rib cage, and the date for his return is uncertain. Without him, the Lakers’ bench declined noticeably.
From the outside, though, it looks more like the Lakers are clinging to a fading hope. Compared to some of the competition — notably the Thunder, Clippers and Spurs — they’re glaringly average. And on the road, the Lakers appear more like tourists from another land with a faulty GPS.
Given the fallout from his last blast, when in 2007 he demanded to be traded and insulted the boss (owner Jerry Buss), Bryant is playing the statesman this time. He’s being diplomatic. He’s trying to get everyone around him to remain calm and push forward. All of that is highly admirable.
Of course, that demeanor is at odds with his most prominent personality trait, which is his savage competitiveness. When he sees younger teams outrun his own, sparks fly. When he takes a breather on the bench and watches as the second unit blows a lead, lava bubbles inside. When he takes a look at the standings and projects to a first-round playoff exit, intense heat builds up.
All signs point to Mount Kobe going “Ker-plooey!” It’s just a matter of when, and whether there will be enough time for those in surrounding areas to take cover.