Eighteen months later, their future suffered the same fate when lottery pick Julius Randle's right tibia broke 13 minutes into his professional debut.
A day later, the Lakers find themselves on unfamiliar ground. Their title aspirations are gone and, for at least this season, so is their future. What happens next will likely determine the Lakers' success for the rest of the decade.
General manager Mitch Kupchak has painted himself into an almost impossible predicament.
He mortgaged the Lakers' ability to bring in multiple superstars this summer when he offered Bryant a two-year, $48.5 million extension that kicked in this year. In the current NBA culture, elite players are looking for multiple stars with whom they can team up, but with Bryant taking up a massive chunk of the Lakers' cap space, they couldn't offer max contracts to two players, and elite free agents such as Carmelo Anthony seemingly looked elsewhere.
Kupchak also mortgaged the Lakers' future by agreeing to send two first-round draft picks to the Suns in exchange for Steve Nash and a 2017 first-round pick to the Orlando Magic in the Dwight Howard trade in the summer of 2012. At the time, Kupchak thought the Lakers would be so good the draft picks would fall into the late first round. However, after Nash and Bryant both went down with injuries and Howard bolted for the Houston Rockets, the picks the Lakers owe now look incredibly valuable.
The silver lining in all of this was supposed to be the development of Randle this season. NBA GMs and scouts on our Big Board initially ranked Randle as the second-best prospect in the draft in July of 2013. As a mere freshman, he was blessed with size, strength, athleticism and a mature game that allowed him to play inside and out.
Though he wasn't quite as dominant as scouts expected during his freshman season at Kentucky, he largely was regarded as a top-five pick when the college season ended.
Randle's stock slipped further during workouts when team doctors discovered Randle's foot injury from his senior year of high school had healed improperly and would likely require surgery that would keep him out two to three months over the summer. The Lakers balked at the diagnosis and drafted him with the seventh pick. Randle played just so-so during Summer League, but a solid preseason, along with some strong bonding with Bryant, convinced Lakers brass Randle was a future star around whom the team could build.
The Lakers knew that they'd struggle to make the playoffs in the hyper-competitive Western Conference, but they felt the development of Randle would give them a homegrown second star to perhaps lure a top free agent in the summer of 2015.
While Randle is expected to fully recover from the surgery, his development will be stalled for the entire season, taking away a key recruiting chip for the Lakers this summer.
What should the Lakers do now?
Kupchak could take a page out of Philadelphia GM Sam Hinkie's playbook and let his team slide into oblivion this season. The Lakers owe the Suns their first-round pick this season, but only if it falls between 6 and 30. In other words, if the Lakers end up with a top-five pick, they keep it.
The Lakers had planned on being much better than that this season. Even if the playoffs weren't in the cards, they expected to at least compete for them. Randle's absence won't necessarily change their immediate fortunes on the court. He wasn't starting, and the Lakers still have Carlos Boozer and Ed Davis, who can handle the minutes. But the Lakers have even more incentive to lose now and pick up that lottery pick asset this season.
I don't think Mitch has much choice but to find ways to lose...I don't think they have the assets to get good enough to make the playoffs and I don't think they have the [expletive] to trade Kobe. It's paradoxical, but right now losing seems like the only way to really get better.
The 2015 NBA draft is loaded with bigs who could help. Duke's Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns (ranked No. 1 and No. 2 on my Big Board respectively) could both be terrific chips for the Lakers, as could 6-foot-5 point guard Emmanuel Mudiay.
They could either draft them and develop them alongside Randle next season and use the two to lure a veteran like Rajon Rondo, Goran Dragic (who has a player option) or Ricky Rubio (assuming he doesn't sign an extension and becomes a restricted free agent). Or they could use their pick (or Randle) in a trade for another veteran over the summer. Either way, their 2015 first-round pick is an important asset for a team that currently lacks them.
Trading away Jeremy Lin and Ed Davis could help hasten the fall. The problem, of course, is that Bryant won't be happy. No veteran in the last few years of his career, especially Bryant, is going to be happy playing on a team that is set up to lose every night. Selling Bryant on this direction seems like a very hard task.
A second option for Kupchak is to double down on making the playoffs this season. Without the silver lining of Randle, the Lakers could continue to pursue trades that allow the team to compete for a playoff spot in the West.
Again, the challenge is the Lakers don't have many coveted assets. The best thing they have going for them is their draft picks, but since they owe the Suns their 2015 pick and the Magic their 2017 pick, the earliest pick they could trade is a first-rounder in 2021. That's not going to work.
Their best hope here is to use Nash's expiring contract as bait to offer a team cap relief in return for a veteran. They won't get a great player out of a transaction like that, but given that Nash is out the entire season, they could upgrade somewhere.
The final option is for the Lakers to convince Bryant to waive his no-trade clause and let the team trade him. If Bryant can show over the next month or so that he's healthy, several teams that are trying to compete for titles could show interest.
The New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks and possibly Charlotte Hornets are all teams that could conceivably want Bryant for a title run. None of them appear to shy away from taking bold risks and spending the money to do so. All of them appear to be a piece or two away from a title, and a combination of cap relief, young players and draft picks could get it done. A reunion with Phil Jackson in New York would be especially possible, and a trade that netted the Lakers young players like Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. along with a 2015 first-round pick and a big expiring salary like Amar'e Stoudemire's or Andrea Bargnani's could meet the Lakers' needs.
I posed all three scenarios to a couple of rival GMs. They agreed that the first one is the one most likely to pay long-term dividends. As both Hinkie and Sam Presti have taught the league, assets matter and the Lakers finding a way to keep that pick might be the best hope they have for the future.
The second scenario offers limited options for the Lakers. The third scenario, while technically plausible, is considered heretical by so many Lakers faithful it's hard to see the Lakers pulling the trigger.
"I don't think Mitch has much choice but to find ways to lose," one GM told ESPN. "They're going to be bad anyway. You don't want to be just good enough that you lose the pick and still miss the playoffs. I don't think they have the assets to get good enough to make the playoffs and I don't think they have the [expletive] to trade Kobe. It's paradoxical, but right now losing seems like the only way to really get better."