Despite Faint Glimmer of Hope, Lakers Must Look to Future

It’s been about twelve hours since the end of Game 3 in Dallas and I still feel the same way I felt going into the game. The Lakers never had a chance. For a team that was supposed to cruise to the NBA Finals for a fourth straight year it seems that the magic has finally run out. It will be a disappointing end to a season that started with great promise. All the goals that the team had before them back in October have crumbled like a house of cards. Phil Jackson will not get his fourth three-peat. Kobe Bryant won’t get his second. The Lakers will remain (at least) one championship behind the Celtics on the all-time list.

As I tried to collect my thoughts to put together an article for last night’s game the word I kept coming across was fitting. It was fitting that Bryant would come up just short of Michael Jordan’s title record. It was fitting that Jackson finally suffered a debilitating post-season exit. It was fitting that a team that flirted with disaster for so many years finally went down in flames.

The Lakers are a team that has been described in many different ways. Some say they’re bi-polar. Others claim they’re just lazy. I think the best way to accurately describe them is inconsistent. Painfully inconsistent. With the talent on the roster there’s no question they should be one of the last teams standing, instead of facing a sweep at the hands of a lower seed in the second round. There will undoubtedly be disappointment and questions surrounding the team as we transition into the off-season. Trade rumors will fly like an uncaged hummingbird. People will begin to question things that were previously set in stone. And, as the end of the Phil Jackson tenure finally arrives these questions will be appropriate.

While the Lakers team will most likely feature the same core players next season the atmosphere will be different. Even though Bryant will still be the focal point of the roster, it will be a team we’re not used to watching. The Lakers’ front office hasn’t dropped any hints on who is being considered to replace Jackson as the next head coach. Whoever it is, they’re in for a tough road. The Lakers championship window is closing rapidly, and many (myself included) believe Mark Cuban’s Mavericks just slammed it shut.

Even if Los Angeles is able to play at a high level next year the following season is still questionable. I think it’s fair to say that Bryant’s career is now clearly on the downslide. He’s no longer able to carry the team over the course of an entire game, let alone an entire season. The thousands of hours that Bryant has spent sacrificing his body for the sake of the game has finally caught up with him. No matter how hard he tries, Bryant will never be able to overcome the natural course of time.

So the question for the Lakers becomes this: who becomes the next centerpiece for Los Angeles? Who is dubbed the heir apparent to Bryant and will carry the torch once Bryant ultimately moves on? Some say it’s Andrew Bynum. I’m not convinced. While at times Bynum has certainly shown an ability to control both ends of the floor, he has yet to play a complete season without missing significant time due to an injury. Every time he goes to the floor or lands awkwardly there is a quick sense of panic, as nobody knows when his body will give out on him next. And, even when he is healthy he has been wildly inconsistent. Despite Jim Buss’ apparent unwavering faith in the young center, if the Lakers want the post-Kobe era to bring championships they need a more reliable star than Andrew Bynum.

This of course brings to light all the trade rumors that have been so callously thrown about over the last few months. Names like Dwight Howard and Chris Paul have been dropped as if the ultimate acquisition of one of these players is inevitable. Unfortunately it’s not that simple. The Lakers sacrificed a lot of their long term plans to win the last two championships. The team is bogged down with heavy contracts for the next three to four years. To make matters worse, the current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire at the end of the season. Even if a lockout occurs, ultimately a new CBA will be drafted that could very well limit the luxury cap options that Los Angeles has taken advantage of over the past decade.

If that is indeed the case the chance to snag one of those top free agents is slim at best. The Lakers would be looking at trades as the only means to bring a star player in. This could be difficult since the only real strong trade asset they have is Bynum. The Lakers have been hesitant to move Bynum up until now. Ultimately their decision to keep him or not will dictate the success of the next era of Laker basketball.

While many people may not agree with looking ahead while the Lakers are still technically alive, it’s a situation that is impossible to ignore. Whether you like it or not this particular group of Lakers has run its course. They were one of the most successful teams in NBA history, and it’s important not to forget that. But the second you stop to reflect instead of moving forward and thinking of the next move that needs to be made you become a bystander, watching success race past your window. You may think I’m being too harsh. I just like to be prepared.

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