Standing in the center of the Lakers locker room after last Friday's loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, you heard the same question ricocheting out of opposite corners.
"How would it be different if Kobe was here?"
This is the same unanswerable Ma Nishtana you hear when bullshitting with the Auto Zone employee installing your battery or your best friend who screams epithets every time a report surfaces about Steve Nash's malfunctioning nervous system.
Unless you spent the last 18 months searching for your mantra in a Marrakesh hashish den, you probably heard about the climax that crushed the Lakers' already-frail playoff chances. Following a wrathful stretch that channeled the aerial unstoppable ghost of the "K.O.B.E" era, the Lakers legend tore his Achilles tendon. There are roughly 4,000 tendons in the human body, and the rupture occurred in the only one named after the vulnerable heel of a Grecian demigod.
If some lame with a laptop at the Bourgeois Pig crafted this scenario over his fourth pour-over coffee, his agent would refuse to take his calls. But it actually happened, and in its own perverse way, it was the only logical outcome for such a snake-bit season. The chakras were permanently blocked. The jello never seemed to jiggle. Defensive communication was dim. Offensive ball flow was largely stagnant. I'm sure other squads in human history have been equally hexed, but you usually you have to build your stadium on an Indian burial ground or steal a sow from a witch to experience luck this lousy.
Dwight Howard showed up with a bad back, yellow American Apparel headband and the mental toughness of an Adventure Time character. Steve Nash's once-indestructible bones turned to gingerbread. Mike Brown was fired -- a tacit admission that he was the wrong hire in the first place. Pau Gasol missed more than 30 games, thanks to knees that aged in dog years. A labral tear in Jordan Hill's hip sidelined him for the second half. Jerry Buss, the most beloved owner in Los Angeles sports history, ascended to the immemorial "Showtime" above. And they still played at a 56-win clip for the second half. Finally, after a seven-game Kamikaze streak of 40-minutes plus per, Kobe's body betrayed him.
Cue the playoffs sweep by the San Antonio Spurs. Dwight Howard was lured to Houston following a failed Lakers pitch at the Beverly Wilshire, where he posted up like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. His escape to Texas was sealed with a series of Slim Thug tweets, and the promise that he would be given a special office at NASA to build Lego Space Stations with strippers. Maybe.
In response, the Lakers signed former USC star, Nick "Swaggy P" Young and brought back Jordan Farmar from Turkey. Chris Kaman returned to Staples Center to ensure the support of balding blue-collar Inland Empire fathers. They acquired a pair of promising lottery reclamation projects in Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry -- pronounced "Zah-Vee-Ay," sort of like "Frahnk," the wedding planner in Father of the Bride. Mike D' Antoni had a full training camp to implement his system and build solidarity.