Empty feeling after this draft

LOS ANGELES -- In a normal year, without the specter of a nasty lockout on the horizon, Thursday would've felt like a beginning for all the players selected in the NBA draft.

A day for hugs and tears after childhood dreams finally came true.

A day for second-rounders, like the six players the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers took in this draft, to start talking about proving wrong those teams that passed on them.

A day for both franchises to heat up trade talks and start formulating plans for all the players who'll become free agents July 1.

Instead, it felt like an ending.

There will be another NBA season at some point. Blake Griffin will be a second-year player. Kobe Bryant will finally talk about how he feels about new coach Mike Brown. The Lakers will decide how exactly they'll refer to the small forward formerly known as Ron Artest.

But right now, nothing about the future is certain.

"Look, we really can't talk about it at all," Clippers general manager Neil Olshey said, when asked how a lockout would affect the team going forward. "We just can't."

As you've probably heard, the NBA has sent memos to teams instructing them not to discuss the potential lockout or risk heavy fines.

Well, publicly at least. But behind the scenes, it's really the only thing that matters.

Once the rules change, everything changes. It might have seemed as if there were a lot of trades on draft night. At times it felt like trying to keep score in a 15-inning baseball game. But just wait until there's a new collective bargaining agreement.

Players who would never be made available in trades suddenly might be if there's a hard salary cap. Players who have been dead weight for years suddenly won't be if there's an amnesty clause or salary rollbacks.

All of this uncertainty is why both the Clippers and Lakers have largely stood pat this offseason.

"We had a lot of trade discussions leading up to this," Olshey said. "We've been trying to drive the market as much as we could. We've obviously got a specific goal in mind, and unless we can accomplish that goal, we're going to wait and we're going to be patient."

It's no secret the Clippers believe they are an elite small forward away from being an elite team. The easiest way to acquire a player of that caliber would be to use Chris Kaman's expiring contract and/or Minnesota's unprotected first-round pick in the 2012 draft, which the Clippers have been salivating over since the Sam Cassell trade in 2006.

That's a fantastic plan, except for the fact no one knows when they'll ever get to enact it if there's a lockout.

October? January? Next June?

Missing an entire season still seems like a worst-case scenario, but what if it really happens?

After losing Griffin's rookie season to injury, the Clippers potentially could make use of his services in only two of four years after picking him No. 1 overall in 2009. Worse, if the entire 2011 season is scrapped, both Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan would be unrestricted free agents in 2012.

For the Lakers, the implications are just as bad. Bryant will be 34 by the start of a 2012 season. Would a year off help his battered body or cost him another step?

Then there's the Mike Brown issue. Any kind of a lockout cuts into his ability to bond with the team, which was already going to be a huge issue for the guy replacing Phil Jackson.

As is the case with the worst kind of problems, each snag tends to lead to a new one.

Asked what the team would tell its two new players -- Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie -- about how to prepare this summer, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said simply:

"We'll bring them in ... set the ground rules down and give them their summer books and what they need to do," he said. "We'll explain to them how we do business around here and what's expected."

And then?

"I expect the players that we have, the guys that have been around and working out in May and June, the leaders, to put their arms around them and kick them in the butt if they have to," Del Negro said. "That they'll do whatever needs to be done to get these guys in shape and in condition and ready to go and perform at a high level."

I watched the draft this year from the Clippers' practice facility, mostly out of habit. Nobody does draft day like the Clippers. They send out invitations and order a catered dinner. Some years they even invite their season-ticket holders.

In this part of Los Angeles, hope springs eternal in late June.

But as we all left the facility Thursday night, everything felt very different.

Del Negro left around 10:30 p.m. The parking lot was mostly empty. The future seemed even emptier.

Because this year draft night wasn't a time for beginnings. It was the beginning of what could be a very dark period in the NBA.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.