by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Where to go from here?

Conventional wisdom suggests the Lakers are in for a long slog after their championship run ended in Sunday’s lopsided 122-86 loss in Dallas, giving the Mavericks a thunderous sweep in the West semifinals. It seems a fait accompli that HC Phil Jackson will follow through on his desire to retire, given that he had to be coaxed into giving it one more try this season with the Lake Show, and a chance at yet another three-peat to conclude his coaching career in glory.

Although Jackson effectively slinks away from the rubble after Dallas’ demolition job, Lakers fans ought to pause and give thanks to the Zen Master, especially for providing the last two championships in 2009 & 2010, something not even Jack Nicholson could have dreamed possible when Jackson signed on for another tour of duty in 2005, not quite twelve months after abandoning town the first time in the midst of the Shaq and Kobe crossfire that sabotaged the Lake Show’s efforts in the 2004 Finals against the Pistons.

We suggest to Lakers fans that Jackson, if possible, was even more important to the success of the franchise over the past 11 years than they realize. Those who suggest that LA was title-ready when Jackson took over in 1999 are only partly correct. The Lakers were ready to dominate, but it was the Zen Master, flush with confidence after six titles with Michael Jordan’s Bulls, who had the correct plan of action and finally set the chemistry right for a team that had maddeningly underachieved in the postseason with Shaq and Kobe in tow. Perhaps Lakers fans are forgetting how dysfunctional the situation had become at the old Inglewood Forum in the late ‘90s, when first Del Harris, then a desperate role of the dice with Kurt Rambis, as coaches had only increased the angst. The Lakers were underachievers, swept out of the playoffs in both ‘98 (by Utah) and ‘99 (by San Antonio). They needed someone bigger than them to set it all right, and the Zen Master was the man for the job.

Even Jackson, however, knew that the Shaq-Kobe combination had run its course after the 2004 Finals, and walked away from the mushroom cloud forming in the Lakers clubhouse after what Jim Rome famously referred to as “the first five-game sweep” in NBA playoff history in the ‘04 Finals vs. the Pistons. It was up to Jerry Buss and Mitch Kupchak to recalibrate the roster. Kobe would stay and Shaq would go, to Miami, in exchange for several less dominant but eventually useful parts including Lamar Odom. Rudy Tomjanovich was pegged as the Zen Master’s successor for the 2004-05 campaign.

Although most have forgotten that Tomjanovich ever coached the Lakers, it’s worth reminding those LA fans who believe the Lakers have a divine right to dominate. Tomjanovich, citing health concerns (or maybe he was just sick and tired of dealing with Kobe and the LA scene?) barely lasted half of the 04-05 campaign. Longtime assistant Frank Hamblen, one of Jackson’s trusted aides, took over for a disastrous final couple of months that season and recorded a 10-29 mark, as the Lakers slipped to 34-48, missing the playoffs in the process. Kobe and Odom missed some action that season due to injuries, but at that point the Lake Show looked further from contention than the Golden State Warriors. Kobe’s main supporting cast besides Odom included Caron Butler, another piece from the Shaq trade, plus journeymen sorts such as Chucky Atkins, Chris Mihm, and Jumaine Jones.

We suspect that everything about that season has been forgotten by Lakers fans. And not that we expect the Lake Show will descend to those levels in 2011-12, but it underlines just what sort of magic that Jackson performed to get the Lakers back to the Finals within three years. And a reminder that it is not pre-ordained for the Lake Show to make the playoffs or contend for titles every year.

The dynamics involved in luring Jackson back to the sidelines are not likely to be replicated, either. Jerry Buss doesn’t have any more daughters such as Jeanie, a Laker exec and Phil’s girlfriend and a big reason the Zen Master decided to return to the Lakers. That and a reported $10 million per year offered by Jeanie’s dad to coach the team. Most figured Jackson returned for the money and more time with Jeanie. Another run of championships hardly entered the discussion.

By this time, however, Kobe, a bit humbled by the 2004-05 collapse, was more willing to do it Jackson’s way, and the Lakers showed modest improvement from 2005 in Jackson’s first two years back at the helm, although nothing suggested a title run was still to come. LA was eliminated by favored Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs in each of those seasons, putting a scare into the Suns in ‘06, but the lineup was still dotted with journeymen such as Mihm and Smush Parker, forced into key roles. Lakers fans might also be forgetting how Kobe was famously rattling his sabre after the 2007 campaign, ready to leave town for a team more ready to compete for a championship. Indeed, there were times in the summer of ‘07 that Kobe’s departure seemed all but confirmed.

Which is merely another chapter in the prelude to the remarkable tale authored by Jackson over the subsequent four years.

The Zen Master had preached patience, and Kobe reluctantly agreed to stick it out. Jackson and Kupchak were close to reassembling the puzzle for the 2007-08 campaign, and took the next step after reacquiring Derek Fisher, who provided necessary leadership on the floor and the clubhouse, and then added the final piece when heisting Pau Gasol away from Memphis before the trade deadline. With Kobe dominating, Odom settling into a complementary role, Fisher a steadying influence, and Gasol providing the interior scoring capability that was absent since Shaq’s departure, the Lake Show was suddenly back. A return to the Finals in 2008 was marked by an exit courtesy the old nemesis Celtics, but this new band of Lakers, Jackson’s latest creation, had amazingly emerged as title caliber in short order. The Zen Master finally passed Red Auerbach’s record of nine coaching titles when winning the 2009 Finals over Orlando, then added a cherry on top by doing it again a year ago against old enemy Boston in a riveting seven-game series.

As we said, we’re not sure even Nostradamus could have seen all of this coming when Jackson returned to coaching duty in 2005. Which brings us to Laker Nation, large portions of which having long forgotten 2004-05 and believing a snap of the fingers from Kupchak or Buss will magically keep the team a contender in the coming years.

In their defense, Lakers fans with long memories know that in the world of the NBA, playing in LA and for the Lake Show is still a big deal. Throughout the decades, the Lakers have eventually been a magnet for many of the game’s biggest stars. Wilt Chamberlain was lured from Philly in 1968, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from Milwaukee in 1975 (both of those via trades), and Shaq from Orlando in 1996. The Lakers have mostly been able to rebuild on the fly, but there is no guarantee it is going to happen the same way again, as many Lakers fans expect.

As they are presently configured, the Lakers would still figure to be a contender in 2011-12, but with Jackson almost certainly not part of the equation, the task will be even more difficult than it was in this just-completed season. Jackson’s Lakers were built for his pet triangle; even if assistant Brian Shaw is promoted to the Zen Master’s position, the commitment to the triangle is in doubt.

Moreover, the possibility of a personnel makeover is very real. An already-aging roster has guaranteed contracts for next season to eight players past 30 years of age. The Lakers are already about $40 million over the salary cap, so their only room in free agency might be for an exception in the $3-4 million range, at best. One of their more-explosive components, backup swingman Shannon Brown, has stated that he is likely to opt out of his contract and seek employment elsewhere. The Laker bench, a weakness this season with Steve Blake and Matt Barnes providing limited contributions, could suffer further without Brown and his fireworks.

Moreover, there are durability issues associated with an aging roster. With an older core, and C Andrew Bynum's fragility, don't be surprised if injury issues become more of a factor in the next couple of years for the Lake Show.

Further, there are rumors of internal discord, which were hardly diffused by events in Dallas. Bynum, who is likely looking at a multi-game suspension to start the 2011-12 campaign after his cheap shot on J.J. Barea on Sunday, indicated as much in a post-game interview after the Game Two loss vs. Dallas, citing “trust issues” on the team. The temperature has also reportedly become very chilly between Kobe and Gasol due to reported off-court developments. The combustible Ron Artest did not help matters with his Game Three suspension vs. the Mavs. And then there is Odom, who appears to have gone pure Hollywood after being lured into the Kardashian vortex and a reality show with wife Khloe. Given the dollars flowing into the Kardashian coffers, we wonder of Odom will ever regain the “eye of the tiger” again.

With the upcoming Draft likely to be a thin one and the Lakers not in a position to select a game-changer anyway, trades figure to be the Lakers’ only way to reboot on the fly. With Fisher’s days as featured component now apparently gone, the Lakers need backcourt upgrades badly. Two possible answers are New Jersey’s Deron Williams and New Orleans’ Chris Paul, each soon looking at free agency. Will the Nets and Hornets want to make sure they get something for their star players before potentially losing them with no compensation? And can the Lakers offer a better deal than everyone else? A bigger rumor has Orlando’s Dwight Howard on the Lake Show shopping list. Howard is also due for free agency in the near future, and the combination of contracts both ways with the Lakers and Magic at least suggest some possibilities. But Magic GM Otis Smith, well aware of the local backlash after the franchise lost Shaq to the Lakers fifteen years ago, will be doing all he can to keep Howard in tow, and is extremely unlikely to simply give Dwight away, especially to LA. There will be other teams lining up at the door for Howard, too, if he really is made available. The Lake Show would seem to have some movable parts, but Gasol’s playoff meltdown, Bynum’s chronically sore knees and apparent immaturity, and Odom’s Kardashian connections might not prove all that enticing. We doubt there are going to be many takers for the rest of Artest’s three years at almost $22 million, either.

And even if the Lakers manage to swing a huge deal for Howard, they are going to have to give up something substantial (players and/or draft picks) to do so, and still must address backcourt issues opposite Kobe, whose window as a dominant player could soon begin to close. Kobe will also be 33 before the start of next season, and conventional wisdom is that Bryant might have two or maybe three years at most of supernatural powers left in him. And that's if he stays healthy; Kobe has also yet to suffer a major injury, but what if that changes and he's forced to the sidelines for an extended period? Will he be the same force? And given Bryant’s periods of petulance in the past, if things seem to be going pear-shaped at Staples Center, and the team drifts further away from serious contender status in the post-Jackson era, it would be no surprise if he doesn’t rekindle the trade talk in hopes of going somewhere with a better chance to claim his sixth title, an all-consuming task in Bryant’s mind that would at least get him level on rings with Michael Jordan. Don’t expect Kobe to sit idly if the team around him begins to deteriorate and the chance at ring six becomes unlikely at Staples Center.

And then there’s life without Phil. The Kobe-era Lakers have never proven they can win big without Jackson. If they’re proceeding forward without the Zen Master, it would be hard to envision another title run in the near future.

Of course, there is another major issue that could scuttle the plans of the Lakers and all other NBA teams next season. Labor strife is on the horizon, with the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire on June 30. The possibility of a transactional-less summer, much like the NFL has experienced the past few months with its own labor issues, threatens to block any personnel movement. The chance of a delay to start the 2011-12 season, and even cancellation of the entire season, remain possibilities. Hardly an environment in which to conduct some serious reconstruction for a roster. In the remote possibility there is no NBA next season, does anyone think an already-aging Laker squad is going to have a better chance in two years without some serious roster changes?

As for Jackson, although we’re sure he won’t be on the Lakers bench next season, we wouldn’t completely rule out his resurrection elsewhere. Jackson came back once for money (and love) and could be tempted to do so again, although we must remember that Jackson is also having a harder time of it physically these days, his surgically repaired hips making the grind of a basketball season more uncomfortable than it used to be for him. He doesn’t need the wear and tear at his age. If indeed Phil has one more dance, it could be after next season (provided there is one), on a 2 or perhaps a 3-year deal at most, but his possible suitors are limited.

It is not the style of the modern-day NBA to pay eight-figure amounts for coaches. where types such as Erik Spoelstra and Frank Vogel can be signed for much less. The Knicks might do it, and Jackson would probably listen, but we doubt he would return to a dysfunctional franchise and ruin his memories of the glory days of the franchise in the early ‘70s, when Jackson was a member of two title teams. Besides, would Carmelo Anthony be willing to learn the triangle? There is also not an arena big enough to handle the egos of both Pat Riley and Jackson; nix Miami. New Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov might be one administrator who is prepared to meet the price of Jackson, who is said to be impressed by the Russian billionaire. Since Avery Johnson's status as Nets coach is hardly guaranteed into the future, if there’s a situation that we might keep our eyes on with Jackson in the future, it’s with Prokhorov. But that probably wouldn’t be until 2012-13 anyway, and besides, we think the odds of Phil actually getting back in the saddle for one last ride are still pretty remote.

Lakers Nation has never been very rational about its team; the same fans who once believed the Rockets would gladly ship Hakeem Olajuwon to LA, straight up, for James Worthy are probably expecting the Magic to part with Dwight Howard in a straight-up swap for Bynum. Or Gasol. Or Odom. We wouldn’t hold our breath. Just like we wouldn’t hold our breath for a new coach coming in and doing what the Zen Master has been able to accomplish, especially over the past few years. We hope Lakers fans know how special this latest Jackson fairy tale really was, and realize it is not likely to replicated anytime soon.

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