LOS ANGELES -- There aren’t many in the Los Angeles Lakers organization who have been through anything like this miserable season. The losing, the injuries, the utter lack of meaning in most of the games in the final few months of what will go down as the worst season in Lakers history.
So when the Lakers played their final game at Staples Center on Sunday night, it was hard to know how to act or what to do next.
Some fans lingered in the stands well after the final buzzer, when you’d expect them to have bolted early in the fourth quarter once the Grizzlies took a commanding lead. Were they still processing it all? Or just trying to get a little more bang for their buck?
Pau Gasol stayed on the court signing autographs for fans waiting for him in the tunnel. If this was his last appearance in Los Angeles as a member of the Lakers, he at least wanted to let the fans know he was grateful for everything.
As they met in the locker room for perhaps the last time, Jodie Meeks turned to reserve point guard Jordan Farmar and asked if the equipment staff would collect their personal belongings from their lockers before everyone headed home for the summer. He asked Farmar ostensibly because this is his second stint with the Lakers and maybe he knew from experience.
One problem: The last time Farmar ended a season with the Lakers, they were busy winning a championship.
“I said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never been in this position before,’” Farmar said.
No one has. No one with the Lakers, that is. The last time the franchise missed the playoffs was in 2005, the first year after they traded Shaquille O’Neal to Miami. But as ugly as that season was, it was never as desperate or disheartening as this one.
Kobe Bryant was still a young man in 2005 and you had a sense that the Lakers would be able to find a co-star to play alongside him in short order. Plus, they had talented young players like Lamar Odom and Caron Butler to build around, too.
This time around there’s not a lot to work with. Just salary cap space, a lottery pick, whatever Bryant has left and Lakers mystique. That’s something. More than most teams heading to the lottery this year. But for folks in L.A. who don’t tolerate losing well, there’s not a ton to hold on to as this season closes.
Asked after the final home game what people could take from this season to give them hope in the future, coach Mike D’Antoni was remarkably candid.
“The only thing you should take is to try not to get hurt. That doesn’t usually end well,” D’Antoni said. “Some guys improved but obviously it’ll be on management this summer to get a good enough roster. I’m sure Mitch and Jim will work on that all summer. You gotta get lucky, it’s not the easiest thing in the world. But they’ll do a good job and hopefully people can stay well.”
It has been an open secret around the Lakers this season that most of the players on this season’s team won’t return next season. A few have proven themselves worthy of a return engagement, but even those that have -- Meeks, Nick Young, Farmar to name a few -- might not be back as the team sorts out more pressing issues first.
The evaluation process will also include D’Antoni, who has another season at $4 million owed to him and a team option for another beyond that. While there is widespread sentiment in the organization that D’Antoni never really got a fair shake, it might not matter.
The team is unlikely to make a decision on D’Antoni immediately after the season, sources indicate. While there have been conflicting reports on which way the team might be leaning on that decision, the truth is there’s a lot of information from around the league they need to consider before doing so, and there’s not a huge rush.
D’Antoni still has his supporters in the Lakers organization, and quite frankly, he himself has to decide if he wants to return for another season with the limitations he has had since coming to L.A. last November. Namely, the inability he has had to truly install the offensive concepts that earned him guru status back in his glory days in Phoenix. Last season, Dwight Howard and the Lakers' aged roster were the main reasons for that. This season, there was a noticeable friction between the way D’Antoni wanted the team to play and the way Bryant and Gasol were most comfortable playing. And then of course came the rash of injuries that left the Lakers scrambling just to find enough bodies to scrimmage in practice on most days.
At the end of it all, there was just an ending. A strange, unsatisfying ending at Staples Center on Sunday night. Die-hard Lakers fans, such as Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Flea, who showed up and made sure to stay until the bitter end. So too did future lottery pick Joel Embiid, who sat two seats away from Flea in a courtside seat across from the Lakers' bench.
It was an interesting juxtaposition. A reminder of how tightly this city and its stars hold on to the Lakers, but also of just how unknowable their future really is as this miserable season winds to a close.