Lakers guard Kobe Bryant reflects on the season while speaking to reporters… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
Kobe Bryant met with reporters for the last time this season in a crowded, sweltering, uncomfortable room, which was entirely fitting.
He called this season a "wasted year of my life," understandable because he wanted to catch Michael Jordan in the worst way but was still one championship shy. It kills him to no end.
But neither Bryant nor General Manager Mitch Kupchak painted sketches of an imploding Lakers franchise, seemingly satisfied with the crux of a roster that fell well short of another championship parade.
"In terms of this being the decline of the Lakers, this is nonsense," Bryant said Wednesday. "I remember they had a pretty good era in the '80s and they didn't win three in a row. They didn't break that team up.
"Do I believe we can come back and win it again? I absolutely believe that. If this team came back as is, I believe we can win."
The Lakers have plenty of time to analyze their roster, though they're too far over the salary cap to sign anything but a mid-level free agent. They have four second-round picks in next month's NBA draft, though none higher than No. 41 in what is only a so-so selection of players.
Basically, all the Lakers can do is make trades. They got lucky in 2008 when Pau Gasol arrived and became the second-best player on a two-championship run. There's no predicting future success this time.
"There's really nobody out there looking to help the Lakers," Kupchak said. "With the core players that we have intact, we do think that we can continue to contend. We may have to look to improve certain areas …"
Speed and youth were the main areas of emphasis to come out of the final day of media interviews with Lakers players and personnel Wednesday. Other than Andrew Bynum, who is 23, the Lakers are firmly a 30-and-over nucleus.
"It's still a good team. It needs to have some speed," said Phil Jackson, who completed his last day of work as the Lakers' coach. "They need to get some easy baskets."
The trading period tends to heat up around draft time, which is June 23. Bynum and Lamar Odom each had solid seasons and are the likeliest Lakers mentioned in trade talks because of their talent and contract situations.
Each has only one more year fully guaranteed. Bynum is owed $14.9 million next season, with a team option for $16.1 million in 2012-13. Odom is owed $8.9 million next season but only about one-third of his $8.2 million salary is guaranteed in 2012-13.
"I'm not sure anybody with the exception of Lamar had a really great season," Kupchak said.
The Lakers aren't in a hurry to find a replacement for Jackson. There is no timetable to narrow down a long list of coaching candidates.
"We'd like to be deliberate," Kupchak said. "In Los Angeles, typically we hire coaches and they stick with us for a long time and hopefully win championships. We think this team can still win, so we're going to get a coach that we think can help us contend for championships in the foreseeable future."
The triangle offense isn't necessarily part of that future.
"Quite frankly, there were many times this year where we ran the triangle and I couldn't recognize it," Kupchak said in a brief moment of levity Wednesday.
Some of Bryant's 20-minute interview dealt with his off-season plans and his health. He said his foot was still swollen from a sprained left ankle but his body didn't ache beyond that.
"So this is a good summer for me to train and get strong," he said. "Last year I had [knee] surgery. The year before that, we played deep into June so I didn't have a chance to grind like I would like to, but this summer I have that chance."
How much was he affected this season by the knee surgery?
"I felt like I could do everything I wanted to do, but there's another level that I feel like I can get to," he said.
Bryant sat out most of the Lakers' practices this season, something he hoped to change because some teammates "felt like they could take days off because I'm not there.
"It's like your big brother not being around. … It's upsetting to me. They knew going in what my knee situation was. We communicated that with them. It's upsetting, it's disappointing to me because I wasn't able to get out there with them every day.
"Next season will be different. I have this whole off-season to get strong just so I can get out there and kick their [butt] in practice and we'll have no excuses."
He will have another reason to work hard.
"What I think about is shutting up those [people] saying that I'm 'done,' " he said.
Bryant, 32, experienced drops across the board in regular-season and playoff production. Of the latter, he fell from an average of 29.2 points a game last postseason to an average of 22.8 points in 10 playoff games this season.
Casting a shadow over everything is an NBA lockout that begins June 30 if labor negotiations between players and owners don't quickly improve.
"We're going into a season in which we really don't know what to expect," Bryant said. "We don't know who's coming back, we don't know who's going to be the coach. We don't know if we're going to have a season next year. There's so many question marks."