Lakers still seek right way forward

Not so many months ago, there was a moment, or maybe even a few minutes, where Kobe Bryant seemed to lose faith.

It was May again. Too early for any Los Angeles Lakers season to be ending. Too soon for Bryant to have enough time in the postgame locker room to find the perspective he needed to swallow another second-round playoff exit, then live with it for the next few months.

And so up on the stage, with cameras rolling for all the world to see, Bryant revealed his concerns.

"It's kind of unfamiliar territory,'' he said after the Lakers' Game 5 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. "I'm really not used to it."

The words hung heavily in the air.

The Lakers hadn't just lost a playoff series, they might have lost themselves. As a brand that never accepts this sort of disappointment, as a franchise that has always defined itself by setting the standard for the rest of the NBA, not trying to catch up.

But no sooner had Bryant let his guard down and bared a little of his soul did he close it back up with a bandage of will, anger and faith.

"I'm not the most patient of people and the organization is not extremely patient, either," Bryant said, defiant again. "We want to win and win now. I'm sure we'll figure it out. We always have and I'm sure we will again.

"There's just something about the Lakers organization."

It was a plea for help and heroism as much as it was a command.

And less than two months later, the Lakers stunned the NBA by trading for Steve Nash, their longtime nemesis from the Phoenix Suns. A month after that they did it again, pulling off the trade the rest of the league had been living in fear of, by prying Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic.

Mike D'Antoni was an assistant coach with Team USA at the time of the trade for Howard and but a glimmer in the eye of the Lakers' front office. When he heard the news in the middle of the night in London, he thought mostly what the rest of the league thought: "Lucky Lakers. How the heck do they do it every time?'"

If championships were won in August, there would already by a 17th banner hanging in the rafters at Staples Center.

But the year, and the job, was just half-done. And in a lot of ways, it still is as 2012 comes to an end with the Lakers still searching for the right way forward -- back to what they've always been.

Even after the historic trades for Nash and Howard, they are still hunters. Still among the group of teams trying to find a way to unseat last season's NBA finalists: The Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Heck, after how this season has gone, the Lakers are even looking up at their Staples Center co-tenant, the Los Angeles Clippers.

It is, as Bryant said in a far lower moment back in May, unfamiliar territory.

At stake is nothing less than the brand itself, as Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss continues the process of handing the franchise off to his son Jim Buss and daughter Jeanie Buss, and as Bryant tries to groom Howard to take over for him as the face of the franchise in a few years.

Jeanie, executive vice president of business operations, has long since proven worthy of the responsibility. Jim, executive vice president of player personnel, has taken longer to grow into it, but he took a very important step this summer as he not only green-lighted the trades for Howard and Nash, he pushed for them, no matter the cost.

If a final verdict could've been rendered then, Jim would've passed with flying colors. But the choice of D'Antoni over a third dance with Phil Jackson, and the way that choice was handled, placed him back under the microscope, where he'll stay -- fairly or unfairly -- until D'Antoni proves himself one way or another.

The handoff from Bryant to Howard is similarly complicated and no closer to a resolution. In his time with the Lakers thus far, Howard has proven himself to be charismatic, hard-working, dedicated and enigmatic. He has yet to prove himself worthy of inheriting and shepherding such an iconic franchise, however.

And so as the calendar turns, many questions remain.

The Lakers have come back from the brink by doing what they always do -- whatever it takes to win. Only this time, it's not clear whether that will be enough.