The Lakers suffered a debilitating and somewhat embarrassing defeat in their quest to win a title. The roster all of sudden was looking old and the era seemed to be ending. There was sniping among the ranks and Phil Jackson was preparing to step away. Even with a deep postseason run, there were a lot of questions facing the future of the franchise.
Does this scenario sound familiar? It should, because it is exactly what the Lakers faced after the Pistons won the championship in five games in 2003. Phil Jackson had enough of the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant bickering. So too did Mitch Kupchak and Jerry Buss. It would be less than a month before the team shipped off O’Neal and began a long rebuilding process.
Through that rebuilding process there would be hiccups. Hiccups that included Kobe Bryant nearly demanding a trade. Then demanding it was him or Andrew Bynum allegedly. Then the acquisition of Pau Gasol changed everything and brought the Lakers back onto a championship stage.
Los Angeles fans likely do not want to go through the motions of another four-year rebuilding project. The Lakers have always been the type of franchise that is not only attractive to free agents but does not accept losing for long. It is the reason the Lakers have been to just about half of the NBA Finals that have ever been played and have won 17 championships.
For sure, the Lakers are at something of a crossroads after their four-game sweep at the hands of the Mavericks, much like they were in 2003. In 2003 the team opted to completely break the team up. It was a decision that led to the tumultuous era of the ball-hogging ridiculous-scoring Kobe Bryant.
I doubt Lakers fans want to go through that again, especially considering Bryant looked slowed down by the slew of injuries he has played through the last few seasons and his inability even to practice hampered Los Angeles in its quest for the three-peat. But unlike then, when the Lakers had to let key contributors like Karl Malone and Gary Payton go in order to get younger, blowing up the team might be both extremely difficult and extremely impractical.
Consider first the Lakers’ financial situation.
Los Angeles already has nearly $90 million committed to next season with free agents Shannon Brown and Matt Barnes with early termination options. Beyond that does not look much better. The Lakers have more than $60 million committed for 2012 and 2013. Good luck signing Dwight Howard with that much money tied down in the future. The only way the Lakers can acquire a big-name free agent or player is through a trade. And I do not think very many teams will pull a Pau Gasol deal again.
Rebuilding is going to be difficult, considering most of L.A.’s money is tied up in their big name players. Kobe Bryant has three years left worth $83.5 million. Pau Gasol also has three years left worth $57 million. Ron Artest has a player option in 2013 (not likely that he will opt out on what looks like his final contract). Lamar Odom has a team option in 2013 as does Andrew Bynum.
If the Lakers were to make any moves, it likely would involve Bynum or Odom rather than Gasol or Artest. Those two likely have some value, but we just do not know what that value is until the new collective bargaining agreement is completed and the rules for staying under the salary cap are established.
The question is just how much rebuilding is necessary? Sure Dallas swept Los Angeles, but it was not easy. The Lakers had a chance to win Games One and Three — including holding a 16-point lead in Game One. This is a team that is still relatively close.
Kobe Bryant felt that way during his press conference after the team’s final meetings earlier this week.
“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.”
This team certainly seems like it can win again.
The Lakers finished 57-25, second in the Western Conference, and sixth in the league in offensive and defensive rating. Over the course of the season, the Lakers were a dominant team. They finished the season 19-6 and looked every bit as deadly as back-to-back NBA champions should. This was a team that was rolling. And who could match up with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol along the front line and then Lamar Odom off the bench? This is a team that even with the loss presented incredible matchup problems.
Consider this too then: Kobe Bryant’s injuries really hampered the Lakers as they prepared for the postseason. Bryant has pretty much played nonstop basketball since 2007, with little break. He played in all 82 games in three of the past four seasons, averaging 36.9 minutes per game. In the postseason, his average jumps to 40.0 minutes per game. There are a lot of miles on Bryant’s tires. Especially considering that does not even count his time playing for the U.S. Olympic team in 2007 and 2008.
Getting healthy and getting some rest might actually make the Lakers a more dangerous team in 2012.
It is impossible, though, to predict what age will do to this team. Father Time could be playing a cruel trick on the Lakers and is taking away the championship window. But if the 2011 team can maintain its level of play and get some play from the bench, maybe Los Angeles is not so far from a championship after all.
Photos via DayLife.com.