- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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The story of how the Lakers lost their way, lost their chance at a place in history, is ultimately a story of how two of the great winners in the NBA lost their ability to control the team.
It's why Phil Jackson was swept out of the playoffs for the first time instead of adding to his collection of 11 coaching championship rings. It's why Kobe Bryant, the Most Valuable Player of the past two NBA Finals, couldn't lead his team back to the championship round. It's why the unusually early playoff exit and start of retirement couldn't come fast enough for Jackson, who admitted it felt "really good to be ending this season, to be honest with you."
"This team just had an ability to get in a funk and not be able to heal and surge, to find that common thread to come back and turn things around," Jackson said Wednesday in his final address to the media as coach of the Lakers. "And I never really had a team like that, that couldn't make adjustments and learn from mistakes."
For a variety of reasons, Jackson no longer elicited championship-caliber performances from his players. He always has taken a big-picture approach to defending championships, choosing to de-emphasize the regular season while maintaining the playoffs as the primary focus. He doesn't mind slipups, but these Lakers went through extended skids. On the eve of the playoffs, Jackson conceded that his "lame duck" status could make it harder for his players to respond to him. Something had to explain the way they didn't reflect his trademark poise ... why he even lost it himself in a desperate attempt to salvage Game 3 against Dallas.
Now that it was over, after a humiliating 4-0 series loss to the Mavericks in the second round, the Lakers could afford to be more candid when assessing the fatigue that set in from playing 67 postseason games while making three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, in addition to summer stints of international ball for Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. It sapped the team of its stamina. That was one common theme to emerge from two days of media availability for Jackson, general manager Mitch Kupchak and the players after their exit interviews.
To a man, the players insisted they could get back to the Finals next year with the roster intact, while Jackson said they need an infusion of speed and Kupchak kept his options open. Players also spoke in favor of assistant Brian Shaw's succeeding Jackson as coach, although that's something that could be beyond the powers of anyone who came inside the stuffy, crowded room in the Lakers' practice facility and spoke into the microphones and recorders. Executive vice president Jim Buss, the son of team owner Jerry Buss, will be the point man on the coaching search, and with Jackson revealing he hasn't spoken to Buss all season, the coach apparently won't have any influence on the matter. Kupchak will, but it's worth noting that the last time the Lakers hired a coach other than Jackson, Rudy Tomjanovich in 2004, it was Jim Buss' call.
Jerry Buss always prefers up-tempo teams, and Jackson said that next season's team needs to be faster to get easy baskets, but the roster as constituted isn't set for that. None of the top three players -- Bryant, Gasol and Andrew Bynum -- would benefit from running.
The Lakers are in no rush to hire a coach, not when it could be many months before there are actually games to play because of the pending lockout. After Jerry Buss shelled out more than $90 million for a team that played only five of those lucrative home playoff games, don't expect extra expenditures. As reserve player Luke Walton said as he struggled to carry some belongings to his car without so much as a bag or box, "Cutbacks, man."
While the players cleared out their lockers, I cleared out my digital recorder, searching for audio clues from throughout the season in the search for what went wrong with the Lakers. The answers could be found in a select few days during the season, starting with Day 1.
Sept. 25: Media day
Ron Artest was new at this, set to receive his first championship ring while most of his teammates already had multiple ones. But Artest had a good idea of how to get another one: "It's pretty simple. You just go out there and practice the way you always practiced. You do the same thing like you've been doing it for years."
Except the Lakers didn't practice the way they always had practiced. It used to be that Bryant brought the intensity to every session, challenging everyone from starters to backups, talking trash, working up a sweat. Not this season. His time at the team's training facility was spent in the weight room getting stronger, on a trainer's table working on flexibility, everywhere but on the practice court.
This was the plan all along, to preserve his knee, which had been surgically repaired in July 2010. The knee was enough of a problem that Jackson admitted there was "trepidation" about coming back to coach this team.
Bryant's message to his teammates was not to expect him to be working with them: "I can't." It would be up to them to respond accordingly, to generate the requisite energy on their own. It didn't happen.
"Guys felt like they could take days off, because I'm not there," Bryant explained Wednesday. "It's like your big brother not being around, you go around the house and do all these kinds of things with the toys, all that kind of stuff, because I'm not on the court with you. It's upsetting. We knew going in what my knee situation was. We communicated that, me not being able to practice and then having to pick up some of that responsibility in practice and the intensity and things of that nature, because of my knee. It's upsetting; it's disappointing to me because I wasn't able to get there with them every day."
This is the explanation for the most perplexing aspect of this season: the disconnect between Kobe's game-readiness and the rest of the team's. Normally teams adopt the attributes -- good and bad -- of their best player, be it Kevin Garnett's intensity in Boston or Dwight Howard's joviality in Orlando.
As polarizing as Bryant might be, the one thing for which he is universally praised is his effort on a nightly basis. It's why he is so beloved by Lakers fans: He does his best to give them a return for their expensive ticket investment every game. But this 2010-11 team was known for the exact opposite; it repeatedly played games with the engine idling, never stepping on the accelerator.
The disconnect continued into the playoffs, right until the last game, when Bryant came out and made 6 of 8 shots in the first quarter while his teammates shot 2-for-11. The Lakers trailed, then wasted one of Bryant's best quarters of the playoffs when the bottom ultimately fell out.
Why the detachment from Bryant's play and that of his teammates? For that I went to Rick Fox, who was the go-to guy for translating the weird world of the NBA and its leading franchise into terms that the rest of us could understand when he played for the Lakers from 1997 to 2004. He was so good that I had to place self-imposed limits on how often I quoted him. He admits he doesn't have inside access to the current Lakers team.
"I know a group dynamic and a team atmosphere," Fox said. "When you're playing all the minutes, you're doing all the grunt work and working hard and practicing every day. ... [This was] a season-long's worth of not sharing in that grind very day. Yeah, the animosity builds up. Guys feel they should be the one taking those shots.
"How are you going to be the one coming in here yelling at me when you get to sit down for six months? That's a hard thing to have guys look past. Especially when you've won two championships.
"The year we lost in 2004, that was crazy. Karl [Malone] was out, Shaq wasn't practicing, Kobe was in Colorado [for pretrial hearings to face a sexual assault charge, which was later dropped]. You're not building a ritual together. You can't be in sync on the level you're used to being in sync. You're not used to doing things together."
Bryant's absence was planned and the most noticeable. Then the usual attrition throughout the season took its toll, limiting the effectiveness of practice sessions.
"It's tough to have more intense, harder practices, when you have 9½ guys practicing and the rest of the guys on the sidelines with ice on their knees, getting treatment," Walton said. "You can only go so hard."
Bryant expects to go harder this summer. It will be the first time since the summer of 2008 that he can focus on getting stronger rather than recuperating or recovering from surgery. He insisted that taking practice days off paid off this season and that he was fine. His playoff performance (his 23 points per game was his lowest since 2000), particularly in the fourth quarter, suggested otherwise. All Bryant would allow is that his knee can improve.
"There's a difference between feeling healthy and feeling as strong as I know I can be," Bryant said. "I feel like I could do everything I wanted to do. But there's another level I feel like I can get to."
He'll have to walk up several floors to reclaim his place as the best in the game when it matters. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and Dirk Nowitzki, for starters, have been better than Bryant in these playoffs. At the end of the past two seasons, Bryant and Gasol were the best combo in the game. Not after this one.
Nov. 28: 95-92 loss to Indiana Pacers
"There are some days you feel more tired than others," Gasol said. "It just comes with the amount of minutes I'm out there. It's a reality."
At the start of the season, Gasol was the Lakers' most effective player. He averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds per game and shot 54 percent from the field in the season's first two months. But playing 40 minutes a game, including most of the big-man minutes vacated by the injured Bynum, quickly wore him down. He was outplayed by Roy Hibbert in the first Pacers game, and it marked the beginning of an iffy three-game stretch that saw Gasol shoot 12-for-36 (33.3 percent). He was the Laker most susceptible to fatigue and emotional swings.
The Lakers' past two championships were predicated on Gasol's winning his matchup in each playoff series. He even outscored Orlando's Dwight Howard in the 2009 NBA Finals. But this year, he struggled against the undersized front line of New Orleans, then was outclassed by Nowitzki against Dallas. Gasol's playoff scoring average of 13.8 points per game was the worst of his seven trips to the postseason.
"The thing that makes me the angriest is me not playing at my best, and me not being able to help my team accomplish its goals," Gasol said.
He was also angry at Internet stories that said his struggles were the result of a rift with Bryant stemming from Bryant's wife interfering with Gasol's relationship with his girlfriend. Gasol said things are fine with him and his girlfriend, and he doesn't know the origin of the stories. Bryant said their significant others barely know each other. The Lakers seemed to be in a time delay, reacting a day later to the rumors flying around Twitter and elsewhere. Even if the story was inaccurate and didn't reflect the personal problems Gasol vaguely referenced, they became an issue on their own before Game 4.
Kupchak was unusually revealing -- by his standards -- in saying that Gasol was emotional and upset in his exit interview, and that might be the most important thing for Gasol to work on for next season.
"I'm a very caring person and very devoted," Gasol said. "Sometimes it helps me in many ways, sometimes it's not as helpful. But yeah, I think that one of the things, now, in my reality, is I have a little bit of time to make sure I resolve things that need to be resolved."
It sounded more like a person coming out of couples counseling than a basketball season debriefing.
Dec. 25: 96-80 loss to Miami Heat
The Lakers' most anticipated game of the season was also their most alarming. If one game should have grabbed their attention and elicited a bigger fight, it was this one, with the heavily hyped Heat in town.
Instead, the Lakers looked unprepared. This was the first time Bryant revealed his true feelings about the team in public, in words that would sound similar to what was said about the Lakers during and after the playoffs.
"I'm not frustrated. I'm just upset ... with how we're playing. We're not playing well at all.
"These games mean more to our opponents than they do to us. We need to get that straight. We need to play with more focus and with more importance to these games. I don't like it.
"We know what we're capable of doing. That's the problem. We've been there before, we know what we have to do. It's kind of like, 'OK, we'll do it.' We need to get going here."
Dec. 31: 102-98 victory over Philadelphia 76ers
Appropriately, New Year's Eve was a time for looking back and projecting forward, with Jackson spending a lot of his pregame media session recalling the assembly of the old Chicago Bulls coaching staff and his hire there (he shaved his beard for the part), in addition to reiterating his lack of interest in coming back to coach after he retired.
"I think I've put in my service time," Jackson said. "Everything's been done with the due diligence that I set out to do, especially with this organization. And I've coached about as long as I want to coach."
The game itself revealed the Lakers' problems with their new defensive scheme, which called for the big men to be more concerned with protecting the lane than with guards on the perimeter. One weakness the 76ers exploited was holes that led to easy midrange jumpers, something I was discussing with the 76ers' Elton Brand in the Staples Center hallway when a Lakers player came up behind us ... and agreed. He said there was still confusion about where people were supposed to go, who was supposed to make what rotation -- things that still weren't resolved when the Lakers were blitzed by the Mavericks in the final game as defenders looked at one another to determine who was responsible for running out on the shooter in 3-point range.
In his exit interview session with the media on Wednesday, Walton said, "As much as the defense we were trying this year, there was a lot of positive things about it, I don't think this team was ready for all that adjustment. I think we were just too inconsistent on the defensive end. Teams were getting too many open shots."
March 25: 112-104 victory over Clippers
"It's kind of different than sitting out being injured, because you really should be playing. You don't have that legitimate problem." -- Andrew Bynum on serving a two-game suspension for decking Michael Beasley while Beasley was in the air on a baseline drive.
Bynum will give his thoughts on returning after the sixth game next season, because he has to sit out the first five games for his cheap shot on Dallas' J.J. Barea in the fourth quarter of Game 4. It took Bynum two days to apologize, and it will take his getting all the way through next season without doing it again for us to believe that he's changed, just as it took until the final game this season for him to show he could stay on the court through the end of the season.
This was the first time Bynum impacted games deep into the season; his defense and rebounding were the keys to the Lakers' 17-1 spurt in the second half of the season that was their only championship-level play in 2010-11.
Still, he needs more maturity than what he displayed on the Barea play, and it would be nerve-racking for the Lakers to make Bynum their centerpiece for the future, not with his propensity to go down and grab his knee on seemingly a weekly basis, even when he turns out fine.
He'll be the focal point of any Dwight Howard trade talk -- "It doesn't matter to me," he said of having his name in trade speculation -- and although the belief is that Jim Buss would be reluctant to part with the player he is credited with drafting, if that's the cost of Howard, so be it.
We'll give Bryant next season, his first full season back from surgery, to see whether he can get close to his former level. But if he can't, the Lakers need someone better than he is to be their best player, and Howard ranked ahead of Bryant in this year's MVP voting and had more big playoff games.
Bryant is already eager to prove that the people who think he's done are wrong. He is 32 -- the same age Michael Jordan was when he was eager to prove he still had it after his ouster from the 1995 playoffs in the second round. The difference is, Bryant already has played 1,103 regular-season NBA games and 208 playoff games at this age, while Jordan had played only 684 and 121. And although Jordan returned to his old level, it took the Bulls' acquisition of Dennis Rodman for the team to return to championship contention. The Lakers need to make a similar major move.
April 22: 100-86 victory over Hornets
Before the morning shootaround, Kobe looked over at the iPod that Odom had placed on the seat between them. Bryant picked up the headphones, listened in and nodded approvingly.
"That was Gang Starr playing," Odom said.
"I haven't heard Gang Starr in a minute," Bryant said.
I contrasted that with the scene when Guru, the MC of the Gang Starr hip-hop duo that had its heyday in the 1990s, died almost exactly a year earlier. I asked Kevin Durant for his thoughts on Guru's passing, and Durant had never heard of him.
Bryant and Odom are of an older NBA generation. The league is about to be taken over by the next wave. Derrick Rose is the Most Valuable Player at age 22. LeBron James got past the Celtics blockade. Kevin Durant is learning how to win road playoff games.
The Lakers kept pointing out that they lost to a Dallas team that was even older than they were. But the Dallas team was fresher, having been repeatedly ousted in the first round of the playoffs. And the Mavericks were more cohesive.
"We had too many breakdowns, and they just were adding up to the point that we seemed like we barely knew each other the last game," Gasol said.
They might get a new coach they don't know. New teammates, perhaps. The entire league will be operating under new salary and payroll rules, perhaps drastically different, whenever a new collective bargaining agreement is reached.
Just as it was probably time for Jackson to leave, as he was nearing the expiration point any coach reaches when he's been around the same group of players for multiple years, it's time for change in Lakerland. This is a place where plastic surgeons transform bodies and the earth itself shifts on occasion. Why should the marquee franchise that is the unifying hobby for this widespread diverse city be any different?
"One thing I learned in L.A., every offseason is pretty wild here," said Walton, a veteran of eight years. "There's never really any dead offseasons as a Laker. I've been lucky enough to make it through all of them. It's crazy around here. And I think this summer is building up to be the craziest."