Uncertainty looms in Lakers' future
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- For the first time in three years, members of the Los Angeles Lakers met with the media following their year-end exit interviews and were looking ahead to a future full of uncertainty rather than anticipating a championship parade and a summer full of celebration.
Gone will be their longtime coach Phil Jackson, who will offer his final thoughts on the season and retiring Wednesday but already announced after Game 4 against Dallas that, "All my hopes and aspirations are, this is the final game that I'll coach."
Gone, too, could be as many as seven players on their 15-man roster, as Matt Barnes and Shannon Brown have player options for next season; the Lakers have team options on Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter; and Theo Ratliff, Joe Smith and Trey Johnson are free agents. And that's not even taking into account the possibility of general manager Mitch Kupchak "blowing up" the team, as Magic Johnson suggested.
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And gone, or at least delayed for several months, could be the 2011-12 season altogether, as the current collective bargaining agreement expires June 30, and a work stoppage is expected to begin July 1 with a wide gap still existing between the owners and the players' association in their negotiation.
"One thing I learned, every offseason is pretty wild here," Luke Walton said. "There's never really any dead offseasons as a Laker."
While the potential upheaval might be wild, staying put is a wildly expensive proposition, too, if the Lakers want to keep together the team as it's currently constructed and they don't get back to the championship round next season. The Lakers have about $92 million in guaranteed contracts for next year if Brown and Barnes re-sign. But another disappointing season could be crippling to ownership.
The Lakers profit approximately $1.5 million per home playoff game, so being swept out of the second round not only cost them another Larry O'Brien trophy for Jeanie Buss' office, but playing seven fewer games at Staples Center in the 2011 postseason than they did in the 2010 playoffs cost the team more than $10 million in potential earnings.
With that in mind, Kupchak treated Tuesday as a fact-finding mission to determine where the current crop of Lakers lost their way this season and whether the same group of guys will be able to return to the Finals for the fourth time in five years.
"He's definitely trying to get to the bottom of why this happened as far as us not making it to where we know we should have," said Brown, who said he has not decided whether he'll opt out of his contract with the Lakers for next season by the June 30 deadline. Brown's agent, Mark Bartelstein, said the decision would be made "sometime next month" in a phone interview Tuesday.
There were several theories coming from the mouths of the Lakers players who spoke Tuesday about what went wrong.
"The thing I think that happened was that practices weren't intense enough," Andrew Bynum said. "We got caught up so much by looking ahead; we weren't taking the steps of now to be prepared for what was coming."
Kobe Bryant rarely participated in full practices throughout the season, saving the wear and tear on his right knee, which has been through three surgeries, and his legs, which have logged more than 40,000 minutes of playing time in 15 years in the league. Late in the season, the team couldn't field even five-on-five in practice, not just because of Bryant resting, but because of the litany of injuries facing the roster from top to bottom.
Pau Gasol said there was too much slippage during the regular season when the team allowed itself to fall into two three-game losing streaks as well as one that went four games and another that lasted five games.
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"A team with our quality of players shouldn't have those four-game losing streaks," Gasol said. "You can lose a game, you can lose two games, but you got to cut it off."
He also pointed to some of the atypical home losses the Lakers had to teams such as Milwaukee and Sacramento as a sign that their aura as the back-to-back defending champs had diminished.
"Teams have lost that fear in relation to us," Gasol said. "They lost that respect, and I think sometimes we haven't earned it."
Walton pointed to the limited amount of time the team had in integrating its new defensive schemes from the time it started using them in January as another challenge to the season.
"I don't think this team was ready for all that adjustment," Walton said. "I just think we were too inconsistent on the defensive end. Teams were getting too many open shots."
Walton also said the triangle became too "basic," in part because free-agent signees Barnes and Steve Blake had a steep learning curve to catch up to their teammates who had experience implementing it.
Other than digging into the past season trying to figure out what happened, there was plenty of speculation as to what will happen moving forward.
The one change that will take place for certain is finding a new coach to replace Jackson. Who that coach is will determine whether the subsequent changes will amount to a drastic overhaul or a minor tweak.
"If we keep the triangle, I don't see where you go from anywhere but Coach Shaw," Walton said. "I don't see who else you hire from the outside that you're going to bring in to run the triangle. ... Obviously everyone on the team knows the triangle very well and we've had a lot of success with it."
If the Lakers decide to go away from the triangle, as they did in 2004 when they hired Rudy Tomjanovich, the candidates for the job shift from Shaw and Minnesota head coach Kurt Rambis to a diverse group of names including Rick Adelman, Jerry Sloan, Byron Scott, Mike Krzyzewski, Larry Brown and Jeff Van Gundy.
While the questions remain as to what went wrong and what happens from here, there was still reason for optimism.
"When you think about the future, it's only reason to be happy, to be excited, to be motivated," said Ron Artest while wearing his practice jersey, fresh from hoisting up some shots. "I think this sweep helped. I think it's humbling. I think it helped us to move in the right direction. Get that hunger back."
Artest, for one, certainly seemed hungry. Not only was he the only player to come in for his exit interview Tuesday and squeeze in a workout, but he also tweeted Sunday evening that he went straight to the gym after the team landed in L.A. following its series-ending loss in Dallas earlier that day.
"The way we went out doesn't tell the true story about the character of the guys on this team," Brown said. "It was a bad way to go out, but I don't really think too many drastic changes have to be made for us to get back to the championship."
Added Walton: "There's no reason to break us up."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.