After worst season ever, Lakers see hopeful signs in future
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) The worst season in the Los Angeles Lakers' history has finally ended, and the longest summer has just begun.
Although coach Byron Scott is cautiously optimistic that swift improvement is possible for a 16-time NBA champion club reduced to a 21-win wreck, the scars of the Lakers' current disaster are still a bit too fresh to contemplate it.
''I'm at the point where I just need to go away and decompress and get my thoughts together,'' said Scott, the three-time NBA champion guard for the Lakers.
The Lakers' destruction has been progressing steadily for months, so there was no dramatic moment of failure Wednesday night when they took their record 61st loss of the season against lowly Sacramento. Los Angeles finished with the NBA's fourth-worst record, missing the playoffs for two straight years - the first time that's happened since 1976.
''But this is the Lakers,'' forward Carlos Boozer said. ''It's not going to be like this for much longer.''
Boozer echoed the feelings of millions of fans who expect constant success from the Lakers, yet the ground beneath their franchise has crumbled. The franchise of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant now has a hodgepodge roster of unproven youngsters, castoffs from other franchises and tired veterans - Kobe still among them.
But more than anything else, injuries defined the Lakers' roster this season, starting with Steve Nash's preseason woes that forced his retirement. Los Angeles then lost No. 7 overall pick Julius Randle for the season on opening night, and Bryant was done in January.
Fans have long suggested changes to training and health philosophies for a team that lost 319 man-games to injury last season and 339 more this season, but it's unclear whether the Lakers even think there's an endemic problem.
The Lakers were the NBA's second-worst defensive team, allowing 105.3 points per game despite Scott's stated emphasis on defensive play. Scott said he is open to changing his philosophies on either end of the court to suit the Lakers' personnel.
At least the Lakers seem highly unlikely to have a change in leadership after the revolving door of the past several seasons. Scott returned to the franchise fully aware of its challenges, and owner Jim Buss still seems happy with general manager Mitch Kupchak, whose clever but failed attempts to get Chris Paul and to keep Dwight Howard in recent years could have forestalled this collapse.
Los Angeles has ample cap room outside Bryant's $25 million salary, and could contend for a big-name free agent if any players are still attracted by the Lakers' mystique. Kupchak isn't sure that's a selling point anymore, noting that the Lakers don't emphasize their history much in their free-agent pursuits.
The Lakers will find out next month whether their rebuilding process will be accelerated by a top-five pick in the upcoming talent-rich draft.
Under the terms of their disastrous trade for Nash three years ago, the Lakers must give up their first-round pick to Philadelphia if it lands outside the top five during the NBA draft lottery. The Lakers have a 38 percent chance of moving up into the top three on May 19 - but also a 1-in-6 chance of losing the pick entirely.
The Lakers also get Houston's top pick at the back of the first round, and they kept their own second-round pick at 34th overall.
And don't forget, the Lakers essentially will have two top young prospects next season when Randle returns.
They've also got Jordan Clarkson, the second-round pick who took over as the Lakers' starting point guard this season. Smooth and polished for a rookie, Clarkson averaged 16.9 points and 3.5 assists over 59 games, playing steadily enough in heavy minutes to earn strong praise from Scott.
The Lakers expect to begin the fall at training camp in Hawaii with Bryant, who was a part-time player making $23.5 million this season until it ended for him in January.
Bryant didn't attend the season finale, but he is back in physical rehabilitation and still determined to play again next season, when he will be 37 years old. Bryant has just started to lift weights, Scott said.
''You knock on wood that (Bryant) is healthy for all of next year,'' Scott said. ''That would be huge for our young guys, because then you're learning from the best.''