Column

This Lakers season can't end soon enough, or free agency begin soon enough

The Lakers will sign LeBron James and another free agent to maximum contracts in the summer. Or they won’t.

And, really, that’s what will determine how quickly, or slowly, the Lakers reclaim their place as contenders.

Not a team meeting in late December. Not a few disgruntled voices on the far side of the locker room.

It’s understandable why the clearing-the-air forum Thursday became a major news story. Fans are tired of the team losing. They are tired of being told to wait, which is what they were told last year and the year before that. They want something to blame other than the actual problem, which is that this is still a team in the early stages of the rebuilding process.

That doesn’t change the reality. Waiting is all there is to do at this point.

James will choose to play for the Lakers in the offseason and Staples Center can be the center of the basketball universe again. Or he won’t and Magic Johnson will have to figure out another long-term strategy.

Between now and then, there will be more nights like Friday night, when the Lakers were trounced by the Clippers 121-106 for their eighth loss in nine games.

Rebuilding is rarely an elegant process. Most of the time, it’s downright painful.

Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka have been refreshingly open about their summer plans, almost certainly in part because they wanted to preemptively explain away another losing season. The downside is that the Lakers know some of them won’t be back if the offseason unfolds as the front office hopes, with forward Julius Randle and guard Jordan Clarkson looking like the most likely to depart.

Athletes always say they want honesty from the management, but give them too much of it and they will not respond well, especially if they are as immature and inexperienced as these Lakers. Coach Luke Walton said players on the bench were “pouting” in a loss to the Portland Trailblazers last week. Veteran center Andrew Bogut described the team’s effort in that game as unprofessional.

So with his injury- ravaged team short on bodies Thursday, Walton called off practice and invited his players to share their frustrations.

“I don’t think you work through it in one day, but I think we put it out there about how each guy was feeling about how they play on the basketball floor, about how they’re feeling about the business of the organization, how they want to be played or anything of that nature,” forward Brandon Ingram told reporters at the morning shootaround Friday.

Randle played only 11 minutes in a dispiriting 109-99 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday. He started against the Clippers, but the Lakers continued to unravel, falling behind 19-0, then 19-3.

“We didn’t play any defense,” Walton said. “It’s the No. 1 thing we have to fix.”

The continued absence of Brook Lopez clearly hurt.

It’s true that the Lakers are essentially auditioning for James, to demonstrate to him they can provide him with enough of a supporting cast to make him an NBA champion again at age 33 and beyond.

But these on- and off-the-court problems are unlikely to dissuade James from considering the Lakers as a destination.

“I’ve been on a championship teams that had meetings in the middle of the season,” Walton said.

The players that are complaining are presumably players who won’t be around. And even if these moanings were signs of more significant problems, it’s also unlikely that would influence James. This is someone who returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers to play under owner Dan Gilbert.

This will be about Brandon Ingram, who has made significant strides from his rookie season. This will be about Kyle Kuzma, who came out of nowhere to become one of the team’s best players. And this will be about Lonzo Ball, who has made clear in his absence that the Lakers are a better team with him in the lineup.

Ideally, the Lakers would fast-forward this season and spare their fans the anguish of another 20-something-win season. But they can’t. They will have to wait out more episodes like this.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez

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