Commentary

Lakers swept away, begin transition

Originally Published: May 8, 2011
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

DALLAS -- For a franchise that's coming to grips with a season ending on Mother's Day, not closer to Father's Day, with getting swept into the dustpan instead of holding a broom, to losing with classless cheap shots instead of winning with grace, you can add another foreign concept that the denizens of Lakersland will have to swallow: patience.

The last time a Los Angeles Lakers championship reign ended, in 2003, the Lakers responded by adding two Hall of Fame-bound players within two months: Karl Malone and Gary Payton. It wasn't quite the Heat bringing in the reigning MVP and another All-Star in their primes, but it was kind of a big deal -- and the Lakers did return to the NBA Finals the next season.

It won't happen so quickly this time. There are no landscape-changing free agents available this summer; all eyes are on Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Deron Williams, who can hit free agency in 2012. And before anyone signs anywhere there's the matter of the expiring collective bargaining agreement and the lockout that's presumably coming afterward.

Whenever the NBA does resume operations it's expected to do so with a lower, more restrictive salary cap, which would make it more difficult to acquiring star free agents or consummate trades. Wherever the new salary cap level is set, the Lakers will be far beyond it. They're committed to an $88.5 million payroll next season even if Shannon Brown and Matt Barnes don't exercise their player options worth a combined $4.3 million. Even if you wanted to connect the dots and match the Lakers' earliest salary cap space with the first opportunity Blake Griffin has to become a free agent, that wouldn't happen until 2014. That's a millennium to fans of a franchise that has reached the NBA Finals, on average, every other season in the three decades that Jerry Buss has owned the team.

And before the Lakers figure out what type of team to assemble they'll need to determine who will coach it and what style he'll employ. Phil Jackson left no doubt that he was finished coaching the Lakers, looking into the stands and waving on his way off the court, occasionally glancing over at his sons and daughters lining the wall of the interview room as he gave his farewell news conference and quickly moving to refer to the Lakers in the third person when he discussed the changes ahead.

But those who will remain employed aren't in a rush to name Jackson's replacement.

"That's down the road right now," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said. "That's not something that we're probably going to address right away."

A source described the Lakers' coaching search as "wide open." He said the decision-making chain was executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss, owner Jerry Buss, then Kupchak -- "in that order."

[+] EnlargeBrian Shaw and Phil Jackson
Noah Graham/Getty ImagesBrian Shaw appears likely to leave Phil Jackson's right hand and become the next head coach.

Current assistant coach Brian Shaw is considered a top candidate to replace Jackson.

"I would relish that opportunity," Shaw said. "I know right now they have to take a deep breath and kind of process our roster. I think that there are some other things that take precedence over that decision. I'm not going to consume myself with whether that happens or not, right now."

Shaw is a familiar and respected voice for Kobe Bryant, and that's a big factor, especially since the next coach will have to say "no" to Bryant with increasing frequency. These were the first playoffs in more than a decade in which Bryant wasn't able to take over or close out games. He was 12-for-37 in the playoff fourth quarters that mattered; we won't include the two shots he missed in 4 minutes of the fourth quarter Sunday, when the Lakers were hopelessly behind on their way to a shameful 122-86 sweeptastic loss to the Mavericks.

The truth is that while Bryant remains the Lakers' best and most consistent player, the team's fortunes aren't directly tied only to him anymore. The Lakers were at their best at the beginning of the season when Pau Gasol was playing like an MVP, and immediately after the All-Star break when Andrew Bynum became a defensive monster.

Gasol's dropoff to 13.4 points and 42 percent shooting from his regular-season numbers of 18.8 points and 53 percent was one of the major reasons behind the Lakers' stunningly early exit. Fed-up Lakers fans clamoring for his departure would be advised to first compile a list of teams willing to take on a contract with three remaining years at $19 million per season for a man who clearly isn't No. 1 player material.

Bynum's strong play makes things more interesting. He'll make $15 million next season (almost $4 million less than Gasol) and showed he was capable of putting up playoff numbers like the 21 points and 10 rebounds he had in Game 3. With every good game, you had to wonder if it made him more difficult to get rid of -- or more valuable in a trade.

Even if he suffers another knee injury, which seems to happen on an annual basis, he doesn't present a long-term risk because there is a team option for the final, $16 million season on his contract in 2012-13. If the Orlando Magic decide they won't be able to keep Dwight Howard beyond next season and decide to trade him before he can leave, what better options would there be than Bynum, who's still only 23?

(Whatever the uniform, we know Bynum will be wearing street clothes to start next season after he was ejected for knocking J.J. Barea to the ground during yet another drive to the hoop by the guard, shortly after Lamar Odom was ejected for cracking Dirk Nowitzki to begin the Lakers meltdown. Bynum said he was frustrated that Barea kept coming down the lane. That's no excuse. It's a suspendable offense, and a lesson he hasn't learned from the time he had to sit for a similar hit on Michael Beasley.)

If the Magic would rather hold on to Howard and take their chances when he becomes a free agent, the Lakers could shed salary by not picking up the contracts of Bynum or Lamar Odom ($8.2 million) after the 2011-12 season. But they would still need to move other contracts to get far enough below the cap to sign a major free agent.

I hear all kinds of mixed messages on Howard. One person told me Howard wants to be a Laker. Someone else said he wants Chris Paul to join him in Orlando. Another said his top priority is to sign a maximum contract, which would make a trade (either in-season or a summer 2012 sign-and-trade) the only way for him to land in Los Angeles.

Back to the more immediate and tangible move, hiring a new coach. Shaw would be a good choice because he'd help maintain continuity in what is going to be a jarring transition from a coach who was every bit as big a star as the players. But one thing the next coach will not be able to bring to the same degree as Jackson is stability. Jackson sat in an extra-high padded seat, never a hot seat. With his status (and high salary) it meant losing streaks did not have to be accompanied by speculation that the coach's job was in jeopardy. And players never dreamed of starting a mutiny because they knew it would be them, not Jackson, who would pay the price.

No, Jackson is moving on, not a moment too soon from the sound of it. After suffering the first sweep of his career, in the second round, no less, Jackson said, "It feels good that we ended the season, to be honest with you."

That's a stunning quote from a man who always chased championships. It indicates this team wasn't a joy to coach (bolstered by Jackson sounding more sentimental about moving away from his coaching staff than his players) and shows why this group couldn't successfully defend its back-to-back championships.

He also sounded immediately removed from the team. He's been known to talk about the Lakers in the third person even while coaching them. It just sounded jarring to hear him do it so often, so soon after coaching his last game with.

"The Lakers will have to go back and put it back together again to have a team that comes back and challenges next year," he said.

Last time the Lakers suffered a humiliating, season-ending loss (in Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals against the Celtics) they used the memory of that painful defeat to drive them to win the championship the next year -- plus the year after that when they got a chance to exact revenge on Boston. In that case it was a change in attitude, more than roster overhaul. But now that the team is older and has had its flaws exposed by not only the Mavericks but the Hornets in a tougher-than-expected first round, the Lakers will need to make more changes.

Derek Fisher had always been able to silence his critics by hitting big shots in the playoffs. This season he, like the rest of the Lakers, couldn't come through in fourth quarters. None of the bench players the Lakers signed last offseason -- most notably Steve Blake and Matt Barnes -- made a difference in the playoffs.

Some of it was definitely attitude.

"There were flags, I guess, all season long," Shaw said. "Laker teams that have won championships in the past lose a game, they get mad, they come back and do something about it the next game. This team went through streaks where we lost three in a row, four in a row, even five in a row toward the end of the season. To me, we just never really had the get-back that other teams of this magnitude have had. That part of it was always perplexing. We kind of always had a really cool, laid-back attitude. In the meantime, other teams were gunning for us and they were building their teams to beat our team. And maybe that came back to haunt us a little bit."

Maybe that's what created this sobering thought for the Lakers: They failed with a roster that was more intact than that of many other playoff teams. They dropped two games to a Hornets team that was missing David West. They were swept by a Mavericks team without Caron Butler. Memphis is sticking around longer than L.A. despite not having Rudy Gay. Miami is winning without Udonis Haslem. Shaquille O'Neal has played eight playoff minutes for the Celtics. That screams for the need for the Lakers to make changes.

"That's not my decision to make," Jackson said. "That's Dr. Buss, with ultimately Mitch Kupchak, that will put it together. But it's a great franchise and we all know that they always come back and get themselves back in the race. So the Lakers are going to survive."

Kupchak said the process will remain the same, even if the timing is different.

"This is a little early for us," Kupchak said. "We're going to have exit interviews this week. Once those are over, my staff and I will prepare for the draft like we do this time of year every year. Whatever comes after that, we'll address it."

In time. Two words that don't sit well in Lakersland.