The Lakers' season ended Sunday with a 103-82 loss to the Spurs in Game 4. What does the future hold after Los Angeles was swept from the opening round of the playoffs for the first time since 1967? Five SI.com NBA writers examine the burning questions facing the Lakers this offseason.
What was the single biggest issue for the Lakers this season?
Ian Thomsen: They didn't know who they were -- no identity, as Steve Nash put it. I think back to how Doc Rivers sat on a Duck boat riding the championship parade route with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen before their first season together and talking about what each of them would have to do in order to make the parade become real. The Lakers were never able to have that kind of shared understanding. Coach Mike Brown made the mistake of installing the Princeton offense; ownership overreacted by firing him so early in the season (a decision that should have been made much earlier, since the Lakers obviously had their doubts about Brown); and the hiring of Mike D'Antoni was blighted by the poor way the Lakers dealt with Phil Jackson.
Then there were the injuries that afflicted them like a web of viruses on a computer. Dwight Howard was never healthy and therefore never as effective as they hoped he would be. Steve Nash was out, and so D'Antoni's offense never hit a rhythm. Pau Gasol was ineffective and D'Antoni didn't know what to do with him. Kobe Bryant was the one constant until he went down in the final week of the season. They looked and played like a bunch of guys who chatted on the fly, as if via text message and Twitter. They were never able to establish who they would be as a team and how each of them would contribute to that team because the circumstances overwhelmed any hope of team-building.
Lee Jenkins: If I can only pick one -- age, injuries, lack of chemistry, lack of commitment -- I'll go with transition defense, because that's an area where so many other issues were evident. The Lakers launched too many three-pointers and committed too many turnovers, which caused too many fast breaks. The Western Conference is filled with speedy guards and the Lakers either weren't willing or weren't able to keep up. The scene unfolded and over and over. The Nuggets or Clippers or Thunder would collect a loose ball and sprint down court. The Lakers, appearing old, ailing or uninterested, would watch them dunk.
Chris Mannix: Coaching. It's foolish to suggest that L.A. would be a legitimate contender if Jackson were on the bench, not with all of the team's personnel issues. But the Lakers have not had a system within which they could succeed. This is a team with two of the preeminent post players in the game and it spent all season trying to avoid utilizing them in the best possible way. It seems to me that if this team had just played to its strengths, it would have been comfortably in the playoffs instead of having to scramble to get there down the stretch.
Ben Golliver: This is really a 1A (defense) and 1B (injuries) situation. From start to finish, the Lakers' defensive efficiency was below average, ranking 19th overall and ninth in the Western Conference. Their offense, which was merely very good and not "Seven Seconds or Less" elite, didn't stand a chance of carrying the team to meaningful success when the Lakers couldn't consistently keep lead guards out of the paint, rotate properly to weakside shooters, get back in transition or direct pick-and-roll situations. This was the worst defensive team that Howard, a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, has played on since 2006, his second season in the league. Cohesiveness and communication are key ingredients to good defense and the nonstop revolving-door lineups caused by the team's rash of injuries made a bad situation worse. That Howard wasn't playing at 100 percent for most of the season didn't help matters, either.
Rob Mahoney: A lack of continuity. Injuries not only robbed the Lakers of Howard's defensive activity, Nash's playmaking, Gasol's full repertoire and Bryant's late-career brilliance, but in the interim they also denied L.A. the chance to coordinate all of those highly talented parts into a more complex whole. Part of the reason why fit has seemingly been an issue for the Lakers throughout the season is because of how inconsistently the most prominent pieces have been available. These star-studded unions take time to grow and require plenty of strategic massaging to work at a high level. Even the Heat -- who were younger and more dynamic when they assembled a loaded roster in 2010 -- took the better part of two seasons to really figure things out, while the Lakers had but the luxury of a few weeks to make sense of their full starting five.
Does Mike D'Antoni deserve to return as coach?
Thomsen: I think so. The Lakers didn't quit on him -- obviously Bryant had a lot to do with that -- and in turn D'Antoni adapted his system to help the team survive this season. I still think he can be a very good coach for them because his approach is in line with where the game is headed. A healthy Howard could give him the defensive stopper he's never had.
Jenkins: When D'Antoni took over after Brown was fired, he said: "The expectation is to win a championship and we have the team and the players to do it." By the standards he set, they failed bitterly. D'Antoni was brought in to jump-start Nash and that didn't work. He never found a way to maximize Howard and Gasol. He couldn't find any rest for Bryant. Granted, he had to deal with injuries, a short bench and a flawed roster. But he is a supposed offensive genius who had four Hall of Famers and could not make them fit together.
Mannix: If you trade Gasol, add a couple of shooters and persuade Howard to accept being Amar'e Stoudemire, circa 2003, then yes, D'Antoni should come back. But Gasol is going to be tough to flip, the team is deep into luxury-tax territory and Howard will never be happy as a pick-and-roll player. D'Antoni's system could work in a lot of places, but in L.A., where the personnel is suited for a methodical half-court team, it's going to have a hard time being effective. Ownership won't want to swallow the last two years and $8 million of D'Antoni's deal, but if it doesn't make a drastic roster shakeup, it may have to.
Golliver: I don't have any major problem with D'Antoni, considering the difficult circumstances he inherited and the long list of injuries he had to juggle. Lakers management is going to need to take a long, hard look at the team's defensive struggles, which will largely fall on D'Antoni given his reputation for ignoring defense, but he will surely argue that a fully functioning, Nash-led offense aided by the addition of another shooter or two could have overcome some of those shortcomings. I also think that the Lakers' strong close to the regular season should be read as a vote of confidence among the players for D'Antoni. The Lakers opened the season playing like they wanted Brown canned and they finished the season playing hard, focused basketball. That should be enough to keep him in town.
Mahoney: Maybe not, but he doesn't deserve to be fired. I haven't been impressed with much of what D'Antoni has done with the Lakers, but the team's collective inability to defend is somewhat inexcusable. As noted above, injuries took a heavy toll, and D'Antoni didn't even have the benefit of an offseason or training camp to lay the groundwork for this season. For him to completely turn the team around midseason would have been an amazing accomplishment, and though he fell well short of that mark, I still see little reason to fire him.
What are the chances Dwight Howard re-signs with the Lakers?
Thomsen: I'm not going to try to guess what Howard will decide from day to day; anyone in Orlando would warn me away from doing that. But I do think the Lakers are in a position of strength here. They are the one team that can give Howard everything a star like him should want -- commitment to championships, plentiful resources and an opportunity to advance himself as a star off the court. Then there is the $30 million extra he can make on a five-year deal with the Lakers as opposed to the max four-year contract he may sign with any other team. If Howard doesn't want to stay in L.A., then he'll be telling the Lakers that he wants no part of their expectations, and in that case they'll be better off without him. They can fill the void by shifting Gasol to center for the final year of his contract, so they'll be fine in the short term and also in the long term, based on the enormous cap space they'll have in 2014 to recruit free agents or trade for stars. Either way, they'll be OK. But I do think Howard is likely to return.
Jenkins: It would be a surprise if Howard did not return. Despite the turbulence this season, he had found a way to coexist with Bryant in the second half and has hinted to a long future with the Lakers. Of course, Howard often changes his mind, but he'd be leaving $30 million -- and many millions more in endorsements -- on the table. The Lakers would have to really alienate Howard in the next two months -- committing to D'Antoni's system might do the trick -- but they have every incentive to appease him.
Mannix: Howard's not going anywhere. The Lakers are going to max him out, salary-cap issues be damned, and let him know that he is the future of the franchise. And despite struggling through the most frustrating season of his career, Howard isn't going to leave millions on the table, not with a balky back that could become an issue again later in his career. Moreover, people who know Howard have told me that he loves living in Los Angeles. When the dust settles on this season, expect Howard to re-sign with L.A. without much real resistance.
Golliver: Howard, annoyingly indecisive, is within his rights to re-evaluate the L.A. experiment after Bryant's game-changing, franchise-altering Achilles tendon injury. Howard fought through his own injuries in a disappointing season and he's now forced to decide whether he can handle being patient through another season before the Lakers can get into a position to build a legitimate contender. That's rough, and there could be greener pastures. For instance, the young Rockets are a fun-loving, up-and-down, three-point-jacking machine that posted the same record as the Lakers even with Bryant playing 78 games and having an excellent offensive season. How high could Howard take them? L.A. offers so much more -- the history, the massive stage, the endless commitment to winning, the media attention -- that Howard might decide that the Lakers and a five-year max extension are still worth his patience. For once, though, his stop-and-smell-the-roses approach is the right one.
Mahoney: Even with Bryant possibly missing some time next season, I still see the Lakers as the solid favorite to retain Howard. It's impossible to predict Howard's fickle decision-making with any kind of certainty, but L.A., one of the league's most attractive markets, will have the biggest offer on the table and can make Howard its centerpiece moving forward. The combination of those factors will be difficult to pass up, especially because the rest of the teams with cap space provide only middling alternatives. Each possible destination comes with its own flaws, and I suspect that the Lakers will fit more of Howard's criteria than any other suitor.
How can this team improve in the offseason?
Thomsen: There aren't a lot of options. The new collective bargaining agreement severely restricts their opportunity to sign exceptions. They'll have a hard time adding talent, even if they look to trade Gasol's expiring $19.3 million contract. You saw how the market shrunk at the trade deadline for talent on expiring deals such as Josh Smith, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Basically, they're going to have to figure this out in-house and improve by working together and establishing constructive roles.
Jenkins: Besides re-signing Howard, they need to surround him with more shooters and find better perimeter defenders who don't leave him so exposed inside. That is far easier said than done, considering the Lakers are way over the salary cap and again don't own a first-round pick. They'll be looking to save, not spend, so any substantive additions will come through a Gasol trade. By dealing Gasol, the Lakers may be able to build a bit more depth, but his salary makes it unlikely that they net a standout in return.
Mannix: They must get more athletic in the backcourt. Explosive, speedy guards are the Lakers' kryptonite. All of the superstars in the world can't help if an opposing playmaker can wreak havoc in the lane.
Golliver: Because they are so deep into the luxury tax, their flexibility for player acquisition is meaningfully limited. They pulled out all of the stops in acquiring Nash and Howard last summer and they've burned through their most attractive trade chips. Howard could be moved in a sign-and-trade to obtain some youth and flexibility, but that's not going to get them closer to winning now. Gasol could be dumped or amnestied, but the Lakers may very well decide it's better to keep him around with Bryant's status up in the air. General manager Mitch Kupchak will surely be looking for a value-oriented perimeter defender to address the team's ball-stopping weakness and a shooter to help space the floor and provide a scoring punch in Bryant's potential absence. Kupchak might find that the pickings are slim because of his limited budget and the perception that L.A. will be looking at a bit of a bridge season before the much-anticipated 2014 free-agency period.
Mahoney: By figuring out the best ways to incorporate Howard, Gasol, Bryant and Nash into a defensive system that works. There won't be all that many upgrade options, unless they follow through on the possibility of trading Gasol for supporting parts. That kind of move would hinge entirely on the quality of the market, and assuming that the Lakers don't find anything to their liking, I see much greater value in battening down the hatches and minimizing the damage that this team suffers on the defensive end. That may prove difficult with only minimum-salary additions, but therein lies the challenge that the salary-heavy Lakers have created for themselves.
Can this team contend next season if Kobe Bryant misses significant time?
Thomsen: If Nash has a healthy summer and is able to stay on the court next season, then the answer is "yes" -- as far as contending for the playoffs. It is a very good bet to believe that Bryant will recover and return. He will drive himself to prove that he is bigger and better than this injury. Imagine a healthy Nash keeping the Lakers in contention for the playoffs, and then Bryant returning to the rotation like some kind of free-agent signing. But contending for the championship? That's a mistake I'm not making again. Let them prove it first.
Jenkins: Only if Howard fully heals and becomes as dominant as he was in Orlando. He was a shadow of himself most of this season and the Lakers can't know for sure if he will ever regain his Defensive Player of the Year form. Given the Lakers' $100 million payroll, they don't have the flexibility to add to the roster and contend next season, and they won't amnesty Bryant. But in the summer of 2014, almost all of their big contracts come off the books, and Howard should be able to help lure another major free agent or two.
Mannix: No, but playing without Kobe is one of a handful of problems that the Lakers have to solve before the start of next season. They have to get more athletic on the wing and in the backcourt, they need to improve the bench and, if D'Antoni stays, they need to deal Gasol for more of a stretch 4. Kobe is the Lakers' closer and leader, but if this nightmare of a season taught us anything, it's that his presence alone doesn't guarantee success. They need him, but they need to address the other issues just as badly.
Golliver: I think it's dangerous to rush to conclusions about how long Bryant will or won't miss. The guy is in a class by himself from a physical standpoint and his mental approach to his rehabilitation is guaranteed to be second to none. Assuming Howard returns to 100 percent, Bryant come back fairly early (the Lakers have said he will miss six to nine months), Gasol has a bounce-back season and Nash manages to stay healthy (so many ifs!), I could see the Lakers' ceiling as a top-four team in the West. That's still a meaningful gap from true "contender" status. In almost any scenario, the Lakers will enter the 2013-14 season with significantly lower expectations than this season.
Mahoney: It's tough to say. A healthy Howard could help this team dramatically on the defensive end, but even at full strength I'm not sure he makes the Lakers good enough to contend on the level of the best teams in the West. They might still be considered a fringe contender on the basis of their offense and the unknown quantity of Bryant's in-seaason return, but at the moment I'm not convinced that they'll improve enough defensively to challenge the elite.