By Jack McCallum
June 18, 2008

BOSTON -- Well, if you're the Lakers, all you could do was look at the bright side of Tuesday night's devastating 131-92 Game 6 embarrassment.

Oh, there wasn't a bright side? OK, all that remained was to look to next year, when championship hopes will begin anew. Here are the ingredients: Mix the presumed return of Andrew Bynum from a knee injury with a full year with Pau Gasol in the lineup. Stir in a year of seasoning for the Lakers' young players, and pour in a big batch of a revenge-minded Kobe Bryant, angry with the low note on which this season ended. Bake for 82 games and four playoff series and you could come out with a champion, right?

Well, here are three words:

Not so fast.

There are almost as many reasons to flash caution flags about the 2008-09 Lakers as there are to start sewing championship banners.

Let's begin with the obvious -- the way they played Tuesday night against the Celtics. Yes, it is extremely tough to win two elimination games in a row, particularly after flying cross-country to play the second in enemy territory. But tough shouldn't add up to mailing it in. The Lakers played hard for one quarter, but right after Eddie House and James Posey hit three-pointers a minute apart midway through the second period, the latter giving the Celtics a 14-point lead, it was all over. The fight was gone. Which suggests a certain collective lack of intestinal fortitude to the team from the Left Coast on that big a stage.

Second, a glaring lack of physicality was evident in the Lakers, particularly from Pau Gasol. The tag of "soft" has trailed Gasol like a stray dog throughout his career, but after he moved to the Lakers, it didn't seem to make much of a difference. He had a better team around him than he did in Memphis and didn't have to battle as hard to get open shots on offense. But along came the grind-it-out Finals, and Gasol's effectiveness was reduced. In Game 6, he struggled to get up seven shots.

Third, Lamar Odom remains, to dig up what Winston Churchill said of Russia, "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." One game he's great, next game he stinks. He had a terrific year and there's no reason that he won't have another one next year. But he has to get it done in the Finals, and he, too, often went AWOL in this one.

There is also the question of the frontcourt rotation. Perhaps coach Phil Jackson will go with a tall-trees starting threesome of Odom, Bynum and Gasol next year, but I maintain that he would want more of a classic jump-shooting small-forward type, at least to start games if not finish them. But neither Vladimir Radmanovic, this year's starter, nor Luke Walton, a starter in the past, demonstrated the kind of consistency that Jackson would want at that position.

And if Jackson does start the tall lineup of Gasol, Odom and Bynum, remember that Gasol will have to move to a different position. Sure, he'll be in the post from time to time, but he and Bryant found magic with Gasol's roll-to-the-basket rambles this year, and they may be more limited with Bynum on the floor.

Fifth, Derek Fisher had a solid year at point guard, but there's no reason that he'll be better next year, when he will be 34. Either Sasha Vujacic, who thinks he's a point guard (though management has its doubts) or Jordan Farmar, who is a point guard but sometimes plays like a shooting guard, will have to get more minutes and show more consistency.

Which brings us to Kobe. After a mediocre Game 6 -- 11 of his 22 points came in the first period -- he didn't hang any of his teammates out to dry. He wouldn't talk about what the team needed -- that offseason general-managing thing got him in hot water last year -- and said he was proud of what the Lakers accomplished, even if he was "upset and frustrated" at their play in Game 6. But remember that this has been a long, hard season for the Lakers and for Bryant, one that began in disharmony. Bryant deserves beaucoup credit for becoming a better leader and playing (basically) a team game en route to the MVP award. But remember, also, that he has a legendary short fuse. OK, a championship didn't happen this year and Bryant could say, well, we weren't expected to win. But he will expect to win next year, and if he doesn't see a title team coming together during the season, don't expect much patience from him.

All that, keep in mind, is worse-case scenario. Even in a Western Conference that had eight 50-win teams this season and might be even better next year with the presumed improvement of the Trail Blazers, everything could come together for the Lakers. They have the potential to be a 60-win team and repeat as conference champions. One other thing stands in their way, however, if they want to win a title. That would be the Celtics, who aren't going anywhere either.

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