Every offseason the Lakers don’t win a championship is a restless one for the franchise and its fans. The high expectations create a quicker panic trigger when those plans don’t mature, leaving anyone around feeling like GM Mitch Kupchak standing alone in a packed Oklahoma City Arena. The SoCal summer is a little dimmer. This season, however, there are more reasons to be uneasy — and they’re foundational reasons.
The bench was more of a patchwork than usual, the coach held less sway and the star may be nearing the end of his window. Here’s a sampling of the issues facing the Lakers this offseason.
1. Will Mike Brown return as coach?
I don’t care if Magic Johnson claimed he misspoke after the fact: When he said on ESPN that Mike Brown was coaching for his life earlier this series, he meant it. I’d like to see how he does in a second year because Brown got this team to its ceiling ‚ and the second round, with a division title, was as high as this Zeppelin was going to fly before bursting apart in spectacular flames. Critics rail Brown for not being take-charge on the sidelines enough, but Phil Jackson was authoritative (behind the doors, inside the zen mind) without being an outsized public figure. I don’t see why Brown can’t take the same tack. That said, that works when you have star power buying in. I haven’t seen a definitive account of how Brown and LeBron James co-existed in Cleveland, but there were reports in 2010 that he wanted the coach gone as part of an agreement to return to the Cavaliers in free agency. It never seemed Kobe Bryant warmed to him, either. Not even defrosted. In Game 2 up seven points, the Lakers were lauded by TNT for their in-game communication; basically Kobe was grabbing guys in each huddle and telling them what to do, with interjections from Metta World Peace. Brown knew, or likely was told by Bryant, to step aside. And there was one of the most notable, public shows of the team’s split psyche: Listen to Brown’s words, follow Kobe’s actions. If this seems like an obvious case of a sequel to the Orlando Magic’s Howard/Van Gundy situation, there’s a catch. It involves…
2. Is Kobe Bryant still valuable enough to build around?
Bryant turns 34 in August. The only guard to ever average at least 27 points per game — his average the past five seasons — after age 34 was Michael Jordan in 1997-98 with 28.7. Bryant would do anything in his power to join MJ with that kind of output and result — a sixth title. But we should be realistic and see there isn’t enough of a cast to push him there physically or mentally. We saw it often this postseason where Bryant had to be the leader but his teammates’ following was inconsistent. Trust issues as deep as a glacial crevasse are embedded in this roster — how else to explain 42 points and 0 assists in an elimination game? Look, Bean Bryant is still in the top five in the league’s best player debate. But now the argument leads more heavily on his competitive fire than his physical tools, which he gets the most out of but are certainly in decline. Still dressed in royal purple, he’s a weakened monarch and his rule isn’t the law anymore. The Lakers owe him more than $58 million over the next two seasons —$27.8 million next year, and $30.5 in 2013-14 — but the odds of him getting all of that isn’t 100 percent because I think the Lakers have to rebuild. Dealing Kobe for younger parts and picks could be one way to do so, but it would also be one of the biggest white flags the league has ever seen.