The hand-wringing has been nonstop among the fan base, a championship never seeming so far away. What went wrong? And what can be done to recover? Here are five answers for each question.
1. People get old
Steve Nash turned 40 last year and his game got gray too. He played only 65 games in three seasons with the Lakers, never living up to the $28 million and two first-round draft picks the team wasted to sign him. Kobe Bryant, who will be 37 in August, had a third consecutive season cut short by injuries.
2. Injuries, injuries, injuries
By tipoff of the oh-so-merciful season finale, exactly nine backcourt members of the Lakers were injured. Some were more serious than others, but, yeah, that’s a lot of boo-boos. Side note: Rookie Julius Randle was injured in the season opener. Bad omen.
3. The Kobe factor
Even before he went down with another injury, Bryant was merely a part-time player, sitting out eight of 16 games so he could rest. He made $23.5 million, played in only 35 games and shot an unsightly 37.2%. He has one more year on his contract for $25 million, a lot of money for a player with a lot of mileage.
4. The 'Swag' stopped
Reserve forward Nick Young, the self-dubbed “Swaggy P,” was horrifyingly poor, sporting a career-worst 36.6% accuracy and a bizarre shot selection. As the losses piled up, his ebullient personality didn’t sit well with Coach Byron Scott and a teammate who will not be named (Bryant).
5. Dee-fense! Dee-fense?
Scott wanted to instill a defense-first approach when he was hired last summer. He’s still instilling. The Lakers looked more like bouncy castles when other teams had the ball, allowing a fun and friendly 105.3 points a game, 29th out of 30 NBA teams.
Time to rebuild? The Lakers hope so
1. Hang on to that draft pick
As per terms of the Steve Nash trade, the Lakers must trade this year’s first-round draft pick if it’s not in the top five. Right now, they sit at No. 4 going into the May 19 lottery. They have a 37.8% shot of moving into the top three picks but also a 17.2% chance of falling below fifth, which would be disastrous, no matter what they say.
2. Use the draft pick wisely
If they get lucky with the above, a much-needed infusion of talent will obviously help. There are two projected game-changing big men (Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns) and two well-regarded point guards (D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay). Any of them would help, particularly Okafor or Towns.
3. Woo those free agents
Someone will take the Lakers’ money, won’t they?
After failing to convince Dwight Howard to stay two summers ago, the Lakers couldn’t convince Carmelo Anthony to leave New York last summer. Nor could they stop Pau Gasol from taking less money to join Chicago, where he flourished. There aren’t any franchise-changers in this year’s potential free-agent pool but there is plenty of skill: Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge, Memphis’ Marc Gasol, the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan, Cleveland’s Kevin Love, Dallas’ Rajon Rondo and Miami’s Goran Dragic, among others.
4. Let Clarkson play
The Lakers uncovered a gem with the 46th overall pick in last year’s draft. They gave Jordan Clarkson the keys to the offense halfway through the season, and he responded with 15.8 points and five assists a game at point guard. He can also play shooting guard if they sign or draft a point guard, though he looked pretty good at the point. Why mess that up?
5. Don’t freak out
The Lakers have to keep their composure. They’re pretty good in this business — only one other team has won more championships. One of their darkest hours in the Bryant era was the summer of 2007, when he demanded to be traded amid a foundering supporting cast. Pau Gasol arrived in a trade the following February and the Lakers appeared in the NBA Finals three consecutive seasons, winning twice.