LOS ANGELES (AP) Although one of the worst seasons in Los Angeles Lakers history mercifully ended Wednesday night in San Antonio, the drama around the 16-time NBA champions is never finished.
Everybody except Kobe Bryant and general manager Mitch Kupchak is facing the possibility of relocation after the Lakers finished 27-55, the most losses in club history and the franchise’s worst winning percentage since the Minneapolis Lakers’ 72-game season in 1957-58.
The changes didn’t begin immediately Thursday when the Lakers began packing up their gear for their longest offseason in nine years. Kupchak and owner Jim Buss have plenty of time to decide how to get the Lakers back on the road to title contention, a process likely to take years after this long-successful team finally fell in spectacular fashion.
”We’ve hit the bottom,” Steve Nash said. ”We had championship aspirations, and nothing has gone right, individually and collectively, but not from a lack of want and trying. Sometimes you have to take your shots and keep fighting. You can’t always be on top. You can’t quit when you’re done, and we’re in this situation.”
Nash and Pau Gasol bade farewell to the Lakers’ training complex Thursday, perhaps for the final time. Gasol might never return if he doesn’t re-sign as a free agent, while Nash seems determined to keep trying to force his 40-year-old body to play out his contract.
Mike D’Antoni remained the Lakers’ coach before his meeting with the top brass on Friday, but everyone realizes major changes could be coming even if D’Antoni stays.
”I’m proud of them,” D’Antoni said of his players after their season-ending victory over the Spurs. ”They did the best they could. They were dealt a horrible hand, and they didn’t moan and they didn’t disband.”
Los Angeles missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005 and just the third time in the last 38 seasons. The Lakers hovered near .500 until Bryant returned from a torn Achilles tendon in December, only to go down six games later with a broken bone in his left knee.
Any modest hopes of playoff contention were forgotten after the Lakers missed a league-worst 319 games due to injury. Los Angeles frequently suited up 10 healthy players or fewer for the last few months, declining to replace injured players with warm bodies just to attempt to force a few extra wins out of a lost season.
The Lakers finished with the NBA’s sixth-worst record, giving them just a 6.3 percent chance of winning the top pick in the NBA draft lottery next month. Los Angeles has a 21.5 percent chance of moving into the top three – but at least the Lakers have a pick after years of trading away their top draft choices.
Gasol, the two-time champion who willingly deferred his game to Bryant’s dominance over the last seven seasons, is an unrestricted free agent. Although Gasol’s love for Los Angeles is obvious, the 7-foot Spaniard realizes other NBA destinations would put him much closer to another championship and a scheme that fits him better than D’Antoni’s up-tempo offense.
After years of rabid Lakers fans attempting to push him out the door, Gasol has a chance to walk out to a contender – but the Lakers lure is still strong.
”I look at this as an opportunity,” Gasol said. ”Probably for the first and last time, I’ll be a free agent where I can choose. It’s nothing like I’ve experienced before in the NBA. … I’m still going to listen to the Lakers and what they have to offer and what they’ll say about the team’s situation and position.”
Bryant wasn’t around for the fond farewells, reportedly vacationing in France after the shortest season of his career. The fourth-leading scorer in NBA history suited up just six times, but also signed a two-year, $48.5 million contract extension through 2016 that will hinder the Lakers’ ability to build a competitive team around him.
This isn’t what Nick Young expected when the Los Angeles native signed with his beloved childhood team last summer. Young led the Lakers in scoring with 17.9 points per game, but he’s expected to opt out of his contract to test free agency.
”I haven’t seen something like it, just with players getting injured every day,” Young said. ”That part is crazy, but I think we held our own. We came together as a team. We fought to the end, through the madness of being in L.A. and losing. We kept our composure. Sometimes I lost my composure, but I had fun. I enjoyed myself out here.”