Richard W. Rodriguez, Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — Jerry Buss made a rare visit to the Los Angeles Lakers' training complex a week ago, driving up in a purple Rolls Royce with a personalized license plate boldly touting the 11 championships they've won during his ownership tenure.
Buss had a few reassuring words with his players, who had just lost their second-round playoff opener to the Dallas Mavericks. The Lakers promptly went out and lost three more games over the next five days, capped by a humiliating 36-point defeat Sunday.
Just imagine the choice words Buss probably has planned for his Lakers during an extra-long summer.
Buss has always tolerated big egos, Hollywood distractions and huge luxury-tax bills as long as the Lakers were annual contenders for the NBA title. With the Lakers' threepeat quest abruptly over after seven miserable days in May, Buss and his front office have plenty of time to decide how much of this smoldering wreck they can salvage.
Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak will make those decisions without coach Phil Jackson, who insists he has manipulated his last millionaire into sacrificing himself for the triangle offense that produced 11 championships.
When Jackson was asked Sunday if the Lakers should be blown up, as former star Magic Johnson loudly suggested last week, the NBA's most successful coach gave one last smirk.
"That's not my decision to make," he said. "That's Dr. Buss, and ultimately, with Mitch Kupchak, they'll put it together. But it's a great franchise, and we all know that they always come back and get themselves back in the race. The Lakers are going to survive and do well."
With just one losing season in the past 17 years, the Lakers clearly know how to survive — yet they never thrived this season, except during a 17-1 surge after the All-Star break. For long stretches, the two-time NBA champions and three-time Western Conference champions looked tired, old and simply bored with the relentless grind of another nine-month title chase.
The physical and psychological strain of 77 playoff games in the past four years might have been too much for the Lakers to overcome. They won just six of their final 17 games this season, capped by that stunningly one-sided series against the Mavericks.
"Coach always says basketball is a humbling game," forward Lamar Odom said. "When you play on this level and you win, and people expect you to win and everything is great, people know us. When you get beat like the way we got beat, you realize this is a part of life."
Or maybe the Lakers were done in by the myriad distractions that arise for any winning team in a major metropolis. Nearly every Los Angeles player seemed to have a side job this season, from Odom's reality show with his wife to Kobe Bryant's myriad endorsements, from Derek Fisher's union work to Matt Barnes' clothing line to Ron Artest's ridiculously crowded schedule.
"I don't know where we lost it, that drive, that bond we had in the past, that cohesive drive in order to overcome adversity," Odom said. "Obviously something wasn't there. We couldn't overcome a lot of things we usually overcome, a lot of things we used to overcome. It makes no difference. It could have happened (in) the next round, or the (NBA) finals."
The Lakers' collapse suggested they could use a fresh start, yet this team has been constructed to stay together for a long run — perhaps making Kupchak's job even tougher now.
The Lakers had the NBA's biggest payroll this season at over $91 million, which means Buss must write a check for roughly $20 million to cover his luxury tax bill — a check that would have seemed much lighter with revenue from a few more playoff games.
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