EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — So begins one of the most crucial offseasons in the history of the Lakers, pro basketball’s most glamorous franchise.
Putting together a Hall of Fame starting lineup wasn’t nearly enough for Mitch Kupchak to overcome a season which saw all the starters and their primary backups go down with injuries. They also had to deal with a coaching change five games into the schedule, as Mike Brown was ousted for Mike D’Antoni.
In early October, the consensus was that Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison joining Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol equaled a walk to the NBA Finals.
Not even close.
The 16-time NBA champs made the postseason with one game to spare, and then, beaten down by continuing injuries, were swept by San Antonio in the first round for only the second time in their storied history (The San Francisco Warriors also broomed the Lakers in 1967).
So where do they go from here?
First, they must sign free-agent center Howard.
He’s said he’s going to talk with the media on Tuesday and then take a few weeks away from the game to clear his head. It would seem like folly for the big man to leave $30 million dollars on the table so he could sign with a team other than the Lakers. Yet that’s exactly what former Laker great and current TNT analyst Shaquille O’Neal believes a petulant-seeming Howard is going to do.
“When you’re playing for a great organization like the Lakers and you can get more money from that organization, you don’t have to go home and reflect,” said O’Neal, who as a free agent left Orlando to come to the Lakers in 1996 for $126 million.
O’Neal helped lead the Lakers to three straight world titles in the 2000’s.
“There shouldn’t be (any) ‘I’m going to think about it.’ He should have already signed it a week ago,” O’Neal added. “That’s what makes me believe he’s going to do the same thing he did in Orlando — play with people.”
Howard’s only comment following the loss was that the entire season was “a nightmare.” He likely won’t be any more forthcoming in a media session following his Tuesday exit interview with Kupchak. Bryant will also make the rare appearance at the exit interviews, usually preferring to meet with Kupchak for a private lunch.
Bryant’s magnificent season ended with him tearing an Achilles tendon and his future is very much in doubt. If he makes it back, half of the puzzle is solved. But it isn’t just Bryant.
Nash has to get healthy and do whatever he can to maintain that health over an entire schedule. If he is unable to, then the Lakers will have to rely on Steve Blake, who seems to be every bit as injury-prone as Nash.
“I won’t be taking any time off at all,” Nash said Monday. “I’m going to get right back to it and try to figure out how to get (my body) right.
“It was a rough year but I was very proud of my teammates. We never quit. (The injuries) were just too much for us to overcome.”