This cannot be good. Kobe Bryant is free to leave Los Angeles in a few months.

As the entire NBA universe is intently focused on where LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Amare Stoudemire will play next season, a dark horse product is making its way to the front of the store – and that prized package is the Black Mamba. Kobe Bryant can opt out of his contract at season’s end and become an unrestricted free agent, potentially altering the open market this summer.

Do not be so quick to label such statements as blasphemy, but should the Lakers fall short of repeating as champions in June, Bryant might seriously consider leaving Los Angeles. Sure, it is only March, and it is way too early for Laker fans – and even Bryant – to hit the panic button.

Yet, as the Lakers slowly begin lose their grip on the Western Conference, two things has been scarily apparent – the Lakers are playing opponents too close and losing too often to key rivals. So far, the Lakers are a combined 5-8 against the association’s five other legitimate title contenders: Cleveland, Orlando, Boston, Dallas and Denver.

If the Lakers drop the April 8 game at Denver, then they will have losing season records with the Nuggets and Cavaliers, combining for 1-5 against the two teams who give the purple-and-gold the greatest threat in its quest to repeat as champion. To put perspective on just how troubling this losing record is against the NBA’s other elites, the Lakers were 10-3 against those same five teams last year – including season sweeps against Cleveland, Boston and Dallas.

Of course, regular season records against rival opponents do not necessarily guarantee success or failure against such teams in the playoffs – just ask Orlando, who swept the Lakers during the season but nearly had the reverse outcome in the finals. In such instances, a poor regular season record against one team can be labeled as an anomaly.

Then again, when such poor performances are more widespread, it cannot be taken lightly. After all, it is one thing to be swept by one team in the regular season when you are 10-1 against the other four, just like the Lakers were last season.

However, this season, the best the Lakers can hope for is a 6-8 record against title contenders, including a Cleveland sweep and season splits against the rest. The troubling thing is the losing record establishes a trend, one that gives confidence to Laker opponents that the purple-and-gold shield is penetrable. Suddenly, every team believes it can beat the Lakers.

Such is the problem with being lackadaisical during the not-necessarily-meaningful regular season – it appears the Lakers just are not taking their opponents seriously. Add to the mix the Lakers have already played in 11 games decided on the last shot, and, well, it just makes one wonder what is going on in Laker Land. (While the team is 7-4 in such games, four of the last five were losses – including both Florida losses last week.)

Long story short, a 5-8 record against title contenders and 11 games decided on the final shot does not strike fear into the hearts of opponents, nor does it give the Lakers the swagger and confidence to defend their title. Indeed, should the Lakers fall short of repeating as champions in June, Laker fans best start entertaining the idea of Bryant’s first game at Staples Center in the 2010-2011 campaign as a visitor – especially if the purple-and-gold’s season ends before the finals even begin.

Of course, no team can give Bryant a better set of players than what the Lakers already have, and the Black Mamba may still opt out only to negotiating his final contract with the team. Yet, with Phil Jackson’s future uncertain and Bryant’s obsessing desire to win championships every year, his return to the Lakers next season is far from guaranteed, let alone certain.

With the Clippers clearing crazy cap space to be a major player in this summer’s free-agent market, one could possibly envision a scenario where Bryant bolts down the hall while LeBron James ditches Cleveland for the Lakers. Then again, this whole thing could just merely be the most hyped off-season ever, and the only fireworks taking place are the ones lighting the skies three days after the free agent market opens.