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Lakers are living in interesting, if uncertain, times

Sunday Report

Normalcy (shudder) returns to Lakerdom.

Normalcy (shudder) returns to Lakerdom, or a funny thing happened on the way to another parade. . . .

If the question in Lakerdom is, what could go wrong, the answer is:

Everything that has happened recently.

Lost in last week’s excitement over one-of-the-best-Lakers-ever Kobe Bryant passing Jerry West and most-stubborn-Laker-ever Kobe flaming out against the Nuggets, the last hope for a 70-win season faded to black.

Friday’s loss was the Lakers’ 13th, mathematically ending hope of a 32-0 finish, making this the second season in a row in which, after Lakers players as well as talk show hosts talked about winning 70, they won’t come close.

So much for the notion they’re awesome, far beyond the other teams or however else I put it for two years.

In Lakerdom these days, it’s hard to tell where design ends and entitlement begins, but both are there.

With Phil Jackson’s blithe optimism -- he just called his stumbling team “the odds-on favorite” -- he’s one of the few NBA coaches who dares to pace his teams, so it’s no accident they show less urgency in January.

Boy, do these guys show less urgency.

One thing was clear in their win in Boston: When both teams are playing hard, the Celtics are playing a lot harder.

If hard-bitten competitiveness was all that counted, only three Lakers would be in rotation for the Celtics: Bryant, Ron Artest and Derek Fisher.

Toughness isn’t the issue for Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, as much as involvement. All have made stands against rough teams, but all can be taken out of a game on a given night, or in a given series.

Of course, Jackson also paced his Chicago teams that won 72-69-62 from 1995-96 through ’97-98, but the Bulls were great defenders.

The Lakers are offensive players who defend as needed, like fourth quarters when they’re behind.

Giving up 100 points a game would make you No. 18 in the NBA. The Lakers are 26-4 when holding opponents under 100.

Nevertheless, Jackson can pull off what everyone else calls “trying to flip a switch.” Of his four Lakers champions, three didn’t have the best record, two weren’t No. 1 in the West and one wasn’t No. 1 in the Pacific Division.

If his Lakers teams are ever awesome, it’s in the playoffs when it counts . . . in theory. Every now and then, one kicks back too long, like last spring’s champions who didn’t zero in until Game 7 of the second-round Houston series.

It turned out so well, owner Jerry Buss is wondering whether he can do it without paying Phil $12 million. Lakers sources agree on one thing: Jackson will be asked to take a pay cut.

Coming off a title after banking more than $40 million in profit last season, Buss is on an austerity kick.

With no raise in ticket prices, this season’s revenues will be flat, a word Lakers officials use as if it means Great Depression.

It goes back to the 2008 Gasol trade, which went down because Buss alone would take on as much as $90 million more in salary and tax over three seasons.

With huge profits of his own and a greater need for Gasol, Chicago’s Jerry Reinsdorf passed.

Buss never intended to pay all that, assuming Lamar Odom, whom Memphis had turned down, would leave when his contract was up, cutting that $90 million in half.

Instead, Odom was so good last spring, they decided they wanted him back.

Despite rocky negotiations -- with Buss uncharacteristically pulling his offer off the table -- Odom got three guaranteed years at $24.6 million.

As reasonable as that was, the real cost was $50.2 million over three years Buss wasn’t expecting to pay. If it’s balanced off by $120 million to $150 million in profits, Buss wasn’t planning on doing a balancing act.

Now if the Lakers can get Chicago’s Kirk Hinrich for Jordan Farmar and Adam Morrison -- as they may be able to -- they won’t be interested?

Hinrich would be a natural in the triangle for a team with a 35-year-old point guard. However, he’s owed $8.5 million a year through 2012, which would cost the Lakers the savings projected from getting the expiring contracts of Farmar and Morrison off their cap.

On the other hand, who says the Lakers are good enough to snub their noses at upgrades?

Of course, standing pat would be nothing compared with changing coaches.

Amazing as it may be, Jackson, winner of a record 10 titles, may have to get No. 11 to come back.

Jackson hinted as much with a recent comment about the likelihood that the Lakers would offer a new contract that seemed perplexing at the time.

“People are cutting costs all around the league and coaches are obviously going to take a cut too so they may not even want to hire me,” Jackson said. “They may want to save some money.”

Asked if he would take a pay cut, Jackson said, “Would you?”

So much for my theory that these Lakers no longer have any issues.

If they’re odds-on favorites, they aren’t big odds-on favorites right now, and failure doesn’t look like an option.

mark.heisler@latimes.com


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