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Lakers entering age of uncertainty after championship run ends

The franchise faces the prospect of either rebuilding or simply retooling after being swept out of the playoffs. An uncertain labor situation could put any changes on hold. One thing is for sure: Phil Jackson won't return as coach.

May 10, 2011|By David Wharton
  • Some NBA observers have questioned the competitive lifespan of Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who has played virtually nonstop since making the jump from high school to the NBA in 1996.
Some NBA observers have questioned the competitive lifespan of Lakers… (Larry W. Smith / EPA )

Kobe Bryant might have put it best, slumping before the microphone in a black sweatshirt, minutes after the Lakers had been drummed out of the NBA playoffs.

"It's a little weird for me to think about what next year's going to look like," the superstar guard said.

This summer could bring momentous changes to Southern California's preeminent sports franchise, a team that had dominated pro basketball for the better part of three seasons.

The renowned coach, Phil Jackson, will take his 11 titles and retire to Montana. The same players who paraded through downtown as champions the last two summers now look a little older, a little slower.

Magic Johnson, the former Lakers star and current team vice president, has said the front office might need to "blow up" the roster and start anew, but others suggest less-drastic measures.

"They need new tires, new windshield wipers," said Kenny Smith, a former player and current studio analyst for TNT. "They don't need a new engine."

If nothing else, the Lakers face questions that all successful teams must eventually answer, deciding when to retool and how to keep the good times rolling. The art of tinkering with a sports dynasty, it seems, can be tricky.

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Winning at the professional level is nothing if not cyclical.

Even the New York Yankees, after ruling over baseball through the 1950s and early '60s, struggled for the better part of a decade before returning to prominence. The Pittsburgh Steelers and their "Steel Curtain" defense won four Super Bowls in the 1970s, then waited 16 years before returning to the title game.

No matter the sport, remaining on top has become more difficult with the advent of free agency and salary caps in such sports as football and basketball. Players with championship rings command higher salaries, which means their teams cannot always afford to keep them.

But free agency also allows general managers to go out and find replacements.

The final decision on how much the Lakers need to be reconfigured rests with owner Jerry Buss and his son, Jim, the team's executive vice president of player personnel, working in conjunction with General Manager Mitch Kupchak. They will be operating in the uncertain environs of a likely work stoppage sometime next month.

Most of the key players are signed to contracts through 2013 and beyond. The Lakers already have the league's highest payroll at $91 million — pushing them too far over the salary cap to afford a top free agent — and they have no first-round pick in next month's draft.

"Do the Lakers have some areas they need to address?" asked Jeff Van Gundy, a former NBA coach who works for ESPN. "Absolutely. Just like every other team in the NBA."

The difficult part is knowing when to keep an aging roster intact for another shot at the title — and when to hold a fire sale.

Basketball players can begin to slow in their 30s and the Lakers have the added wear-and-tear of consistently reaching the NBA Finals — 77 extra games, nearly an extra season's worth, in the last three years.

Their embarrassing loss to the Dallas Mavericks in a Western Conference semifinal series — a four-game sweep — exposed other weaknesses.

They suffered from a lack of quickness and athleticism, especially in the backcourt with 36-year-old guard Derek Fisher.

Pau Gasol, the 30-year-old forward who had looked so impressive during previous playoff runs, faltered against more-physical matchups. Ron Artest, 31, playing on the opposite wing, was inconsistent.

"Once a team finds a string to unravel you," TV analyst Smith said, "that string gets pulled."

Even Bryant occasionally stumbled as some observers began to question the lifespan of an exceptional athlete who has played nonstop since graduating from high school in 1996 and jumping directly into the rigors of the big leagues.

The last time the Lakers required a major overhaul — not long after winning five championships through the late 1980s — there wasn't much choice but to start from scratch because such core players as Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy were clearly nearing the end of their careers.

Even with this certainty, more than a decade passed before the franchise returned to greatness by trading for the just-drafted Bryant and signing center Shaquille O'Neal on the free-agent market.

When O'Neal left in 2004, the Lakers retooled on the fly, drafting a young center in Andrew Bynum and acquiring such veterans as Gasol and Lamar Odom. Save for one season in the middle of this latest run, they also had Jackson at the helm.

The coach, who had previously won six titles with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, turned out to be a perfect fit for similarly talent-laden rosters in Los Angeles.

"I grew up under him," Bryant said. "The way I approach things, the way I think about things, not only in basketball but in life, a lot of it comes from him."

Dallas Coach Rick Carlisle recognized what Jackson meant to the Lakers.

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