Lakers stumbling into playoffs

DENVER – After watching yet another late season loss by his Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant(notes) sped out of the Pepsi Center’s visitors locker room late Thursday in what he described as a “bad mood.”

With the Lakers these days, bad moods seem to be the only moods. The playoffs begin in a little more than a week, and there’s no denying the Lakers hardly resemble the dominant team than ended last season – or even the one that ended January. Andrew Bynum(notes) still hasn’t returned and Bryant has his own injury issues after sitting out Thursday’s loss to the Denver Nuggets to rest his sore legs and broken finger.

Kobe Bryant thinks resting his legs and broken finger before the playoffs will help him.
(NBAE/ Getty Images)

Bryant admits his health and the team’s struggles are major concerns. But he also thinks they could be forgotten once the playoffs begin.

“Everything is judged in June anyway,” Bryant said. “You’re not even going to remember this [stuff]. At the end of the day, we win the championship and every decision made was the right one.”

The Lakers entered the weekend having lost four of their past five games and they didn’t crack 100 points in any of the defeats. When was the last time they played up to their potential? Coach Phil Jackson chewed on the question before finally answering, “Phoenix.”

Jackson was referring to the Lakers’ 102-96 victory over the Suns on March 12 – a big win, but one that came 13 games ago. Since then, the Lakers have gone 7-5. They haven’t had Bynum, who is recovering from an Achilles’ strain, for most of the stretch, but their problems run deeper than the absence of their starting center.

“It’s tough for us right now,” Bryant said. “It’s been an uphill battle for us. But we’re not really frightened over it or overly concerned over it, but we are concerned.”

Bryant’s health is among the worries. He has played most of the season with a broken right index finger. Jackson said he gave his All-Star guard Thursday’s game off because he had tired legs, but Bryant said it had more to do with his finger. He has missed 34 of his past 47 shots (including all but two of his 3-pointers) over the previous two games. He hasn’t been able to get his usual elevation on his jump shot and said the hurt finger is affecting him defensively “more than anything.” Sitting out some games now – Bryant said he’ll play again before the playoffs – affords him some much-needed rest.

“It gives me a chance to take care of my finger a little bit,” Bryant said. “I’m doing the small things, playing the big-picture stuff. I think everyone’s legs are tired right now, but most of it for me is my finger.”

Considering the miles Bryant has put on his legs in recent years, the rest is well-earned. He played in all 82 regular season games in each of the previous two years and a total of 44 playoff games. He also played for Team USA in the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament and in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“We’ve had two long years here,” Bryant said. “That’s why it’s really hard to win back-to-back championships let alone the three-peat. Obviously, we came up short against Boston [in 2008], but we still played late into June. We played late into June last year. Hopefully, we can do the same thing this year. But it takes its toll on you a little bit physically, a little bit mentally. You got to play through that.”

Bynum also made it clear he doesn’t plan to return until the Lakers’ first playoff game, hoping that the three or four practices leading into the postseason will help him regain some of his rhythm. Bryant, however, won’t use Bynum’s absence as an excuse.

“We played well when he was down,” Bryant said. “We’ve played well when Pau [Gasol] was down. We played well when I was down. Injuries are something that we play through. We are pretty good at doing that because of our depth. Even before he went out we were playing kind of inconsistent.”

The Lakers’ bench has taken a hit with Lamar Odom(notes) starting in place of Bynum. Reserve forward Luke Walton(notes) is rusty after recently returning from a back injury. But there are other issues, too, namely focus.

Andrew Bynum doesn't plan to return until the Lakers' first game of the playoffs.
(NBAE/ Getty Images)

“For us, it’s mentally being in tune of what we’re doing at this point and understanding how we are going to execute offensively and defensively,” Bryant said. “That’s the most important thing for us right now.

“I think because it’s a veteran group [the focus] hasn’t been there. I’ve been on teams where we’ve had a great deal of veterans. Myself, Brian [Shaw], Rick Fox, Shaq, Robert Horry(notes). It was worse than this group. You have so much experience. You’ve been through so many wars. You’ve been through so many battles. You know what the pressure cooker is really like. When you look at young teams, Oklahoma and all these teams, these boys are up and ready to go every single day. The older you get, the more you slip in and out of that zone more often.”

That’s why the Lakers hope to regain some of their consistency before the playoffs begin. None of their possible first-round opponents – the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs or Portland Trail Blazers – appear to be pushovers.

“I expected us to have the best record in the league. That didn’t happen,” Bryant said. “From that standpoint, we’ve been disappointing so far.

“At the end of the day, winning in June is something we really judge our season by. And if we don’t do that, it’s a failure.”


Front-office rumblings

The speculation about Denver Nuggets vice president of basketball operations Mark Warkentien possibly returning to the Portland Trail Blazers if the Blazers make more changes in their front office isn’t going over well with Warkentien’s current employer – or helping his chances of getting a contract extension with the Nuggets, league sources said. Warkentien and Nuggets vice president of player personnel Rex Chapman both have contracts that expire in August.

Some sources have compared Warkentien’s situation to that of former Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe. While Vandeweghe did a lot to improve the franchise, Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke let his contract run out in the summer of 2006 after there was constant talk in the media about Vandeweghe possibly interviewing for other jobs. League sources say Warkentien hasn’t been shy about telling confidants he is looking for a job. Most of the speculation has centered on Portland, where Warkentien previously worked and has kept a residence. Kevin Pritchard, the Blazers’ current GM, also appears to be on shaky ground.

The Nuggets view Warkentien, who was last season’s Executive of the Year, as valuable, creative and hard-working and would prefer to keep him. But the public speculation about his job status hasn’t endeared him to Kroenke.

League sources said the Washington Wizards, Golden State Warriors and Indiana Pacers, in addition to the Blazers, could all undergo significant front-office changes during the offseason. Former Blazers assistant general manager Tom Penn is trying to land a similar position with the Los Angeles Clippers, one source said.


Wesley Johnson
(Getty Images)

Draft chatter

One NBA general manager said there appears to be a growing consensus that some order of John Wall, Evan Turner, DeMarcus Cousins, Derrick Favors and Wesley Johnson will form the top five picks of the June draft. He predicted Greg Monroe, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Cole Aldrich, Patrick Patterson and Ekpe Udoh as other likely lottery picks.

One international scout said to keep an eye on Czech Republic forward Jan Vesely and Lithuanian forward-center Donatas Motiejunas possibly moving into the lottery.


Future is now

The Nike Hoop Summit, pitting the nation’s best high school seniors against top international prospects, will take place Saturday in Portland in front of numerous NBA executives and scouts. One NBA scout said North Carolina-bound guard Harrison Barnes and Ohio State-bound center Jared Sullinger are the most likely “one-and-done” players in the game with Kyrie Irving (Duke) and Will Barton (Memphis) close behind.

The scout said this year’s world team doesn’t have any future NBA stars in the mold of past participants Dirk Nowitzki(notes) and Tony Parker(notes). One NBA executive, however, said teams will take a strong look at Dejan Musli. The 7-foot center could soon be entering his name in the draft after playing limited minutes for Serbia’s FMP Zeleznik Beograd.

“If he stays in the draft, he’ll get a very long look in the first round without a blink of an eye,” the NBA executive said. “He’s very skilled, but he’s [moody].”


Tip-ins

Denver Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin(notes) hopes to return as soon as Saturday’s game against the San Antonio Spurs. He has missed the Nuggets’ past 18 games and has been receiving platelet-rich plasma therapy for his injured left knee. Martin said he could return to PRP therapy and receive another MRI after the season. If he doesn’t see significant improvement, knee surgery is the next option. “I’m not leaning toward that, not at all,” Martin said. Martin said the Nuggets want to limit him to 25 minutes per game upon his return, but he also admits he’ll have a tough time sticking to the guideline. …Warriors guard Monta Ellis(notes) has missed the past six games with flu-like symptoms. Tests showed he is not suffering from the H1N1 virus. …Former Nuggets forward Linas Kleiza(notes) is undecided on whether he will opt out of his contract with his team in Greece. “I love being here,” Kleiza said. “The team and the fans have been great to me. Hopefully, we can win a Euroleague and Greek championship. That’s all we are focused on right now.” …NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver will be on hand for Portland’s game against Dallas Friday to help the Trail Blazers commemorate becoming the first major sports franchise to have their home arena gold certified for leadership in energy and environmental design by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Marc Spears is an NBA writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter.
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Updated Friday, Apr 9, 2010