OKLAHOMA CITY – The crowd packing Chesapeake Energy Arena roared as red and blue streamers fell onto the court late Monday, signaling the Oklahoma City Thunder's entrance into the Western Conference finals and yet another ignominious second-round dismissal for the Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant congratulated Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant and the rest of the Thunder before leaving the floor and walking into what should be an interesting summer. Bryant is certain of this much: He's not done chasing his sixth NBA title.
Bryant will be 34 years old by the start of next season, but his age and health should rank far down on the Lakers' list of concerns. The Lakers' talented big men, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, frustrated the team with their inconsistency and occasional indifference during the playoffs. No one will be surprised if the Lakers explore trade offers for one – or even both – of them. Point guard could again become a position of need. The Lakers also were limited by their slow adjustment to coach Mike Brown.
And yet Bryant is willing to gamble considerable stakes against any critic who suggests the Lakers' championship window has closed.
"Put your house on it," Bryant said. "I would put my house on it. I ain’t going nowhere. They can put their house on it, but I don’t think they want to bet that because they’re not stupid. They’re foolish, but they are not stupid."
The Lakers were eliminated by the Thunder in five games. In two of the losses, the Lakers unraveled in the final minutes. Their lopsided defeat in Game 5 again raised questions about the makeup of the team. Bryant scored 42 points on Monday, but several of his teammates were far less effective.
Gasol had 14 points and 16 rebounds, but Bryant voiced his frustration with him throughout the game. Bynum had just 10 points and four rebounds in a foul-plagued performance. Point guard Ramon Sessions missed five of his six shots and committed six turnovers. The Lakers' bench was outscored 35-5.
"I’m not going to speak on the record about it,” Bryant said when asked about his teammates' play.
The Lakers trailed by six when Brown elected to sit Bryant at the start of the fourth quarter. By the time Bryant returned to the court less than two minutes later, the Lakers were down 14. Bryant didn't complain publicly about Brown's decision to rest him.
"Obviously, I was in good rhythm," Bryant said. "But that’s what we do."
Bryant, Gasol and Bynum agree on at least one thing: They think it's difficult to accurately judge the Lakers' season after the departure of longtime coach Phil Jackson. With a shortened training camp and a compressed 66-game schedule that afforded little practice time, the players were forced to adjust to Brown and his system on the fly. Bryant said Brown was still adding wrinkles to the Lakers' offense in the playoffs.
“We were still changing what we were executing, so that had a lot to do with it," Bryant said. "Normally, we know exactly what we’re going to do. I’m used to the triangle [offense] where we know what we were going to do. This was something where we are still trying to guess through it."
Said Bynum: “We need a full training camp. We never really adjusted to the system.”
The Lakers also can't be sure how their roster will look next season. Bynum is eligible for a contract extension, but what should he be paid after an admitted “up-and-down season” where he sometimes appeared unmotivated? He was benched for defiantly shooting a 3-pointer in a game against the Golden State Warriors; he skipped a meeting with general manager Mitch Kupchak; and he admitted he wasn't ready to play in a Game 3 loss to the Denver Nuggets in the first round.
Even so, Bynum still rates as the NBA's second-best center, and the Lakers could again try to engage the Orlando Magic in trade talks for the one player who ranks above him: Dwight Howard. A lucrative extension for Bynum will limit how the Lakers construct their roster, given the league's new salary-cap rules and the max-level contacts of Bryant and Gasol.
"Am I fearful of change?" Bynum said. "Change never bothers me. I’ll play anywhere. I’ll come back a better player."
The Lakers thought they had traded Gasol before the season, agreeing to a deal in principle with the Houston Rockets as part of the Chris Paul trade the NBA ultimately nixed. Gasol could again find himself on the trading block, even though he thinks the Lakers don't need to make major changes to their roster.
“The pieces here have proven their value as far as winning championships and that’s something you don’t always find,” Gasol said.
Sessions is undecided on whether to exercise his $4.5 million option for next season. After showing some promise following his March 15 trade to the Lakers from the Cleveland Cavaliers, Sessions struggled in his first postseason.
“I’m going to take a few days to go over it and figure it out,” he said.
Kupchak said he wasn’t ready to talk discuss specific players about a half hour after the final buzzer of the Lakers’ season. Bryant declined comment when asked directly if the roster needed change. He said only that he's confident the Lakers will do what's needed to contend for a championship next season.
"I’m confident in Mitch. I’m confident in [vice president] Jim [Buss]," Bryant said. "… They’ve done a phenomenal job."
And if you don’t believe Bryant? Show him your house keys.
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