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.
They're already committed to more than $88 million in salaries with nine guaranteed contracts for next season, including $18.7 million for disappearing All-Star Pau Gasol, $6.8 million for the regressing Artest, and $11.7 million over the next two seasons for forward Luke Walton, whose 4 minutes of garbage time on Sunday were his only action of the postseason.
Yet the Lakers' fans don't want to hear about accounting problems. On talk radio and Internet message boards, they've already moved on to the possibility of landing one or two marquee free agents in the next year, when Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Deron Williams all will be available.
Although the Lakers' biggest need clearly is at point guard, where Fisher and backup Steve Blake contributed almost nothing all season long, Howard was a trending topic on Twitter in Los Angeles for most of Monday. The Lakers' glamour could attract superstar free agents, but Kupchak must figure out how to pay them.
Kupchak doesn't appear to be in a hurry to replace Jackson, and the Lakers' early exit might have hurt the chances of assistant coach Brian Shaw, Bryant's favorite for the job. After Detroit upset the Lakers in the 2004 NBA finals during a similar collapse, Buss went outside the Lakers family to hire two-time champion Rudy Tomjanovich during Jackson's brief retirement.
Several veteran coaches are available this time around, including Larry Brown and longtime Lakers nemesis Rick Adelman. Kurt Rambis already has a job in Minnesota, yet he's a longtime Lakers stalwart who attended nearly every home playoff game this spring, sometimes sitting with executive Jeanie Buss.
Hidden in the Lakers' disappointment is a chance to retool for the future, rebuilding into another championship contender for the final years of Bryant's career. Jackson's departure means the slow, old Lakers have a chance to change their image if Kupchak and Buss can turn their backlog of bloated contracts into new assets.
But changing the Lakers' culture won't be easy, even after this humbling end. Shortly after the Lakers' supposedly somber plane ride home Sunday night, Artest — whose third-quarter breakaway layup attempt was blocked by the rim — already was on Twitter asking fans to come bowling with him.
"The Lakers are a marked franchise," backup guard Shannon Brown said. "Every time we step out there, nobody wants to see us win."
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