Lakers

What Does the Future Hold for Kobe, Phil and the Lakers?

| by Alex Groberman

The Los Angeles Lakers are your 2009-10 NBA champions.

Now what?

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Two weeks later, there is still electricity in the Los Angeles air. Purple and gold flags flutter in the wind as cars speed by, fans are still wearing their Kobe Bryant jerseys proudly and Ron Artest’s music video remains an Internet sensation.

Yet, even in the midst of a continuing celebration, the Lakers find themselves in a slight state of flux when it comes to next season and a potential three-peat.

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The biggest question mark belongs to the future of the team’s head coach, Phil Jackson.

Initial reports had the 11-time champion (as a coach, two more as a player) leaning towards retirement due to health concerns. After giving the keynote speech at the Western Governors’ Assn. annual meeting, Jackson cited the health problems that another prominent NBA coach faced this past season.

"My concern, to be quite blunt, is I don't want to happen to me what happened to Denver this year with George Karl," Jackson said. Karl went on a leave of absence midway through last season after learning he had neck and throat cancer.

At 64 years old, Jackson is said to be weighing his options carefully. Trying to balance out his desire to continue leading a team that will at the very least contend for a title next year, with a conscious understanding of the stress and concerns that plague all NBA coaches.

With his contract expiring at the end of the month, Jackson will evaluate his health and then give his decision to the Lakers. It is generally accepted that if Jackson even has the slightest desire to return to the team, the Buss family will find a way to make it work.

Recently, Derek Fisher answered a few questions about Jackson at a Players Association meeting in Las Vegas.

"In terms of my feelings about him: He's remarkable," Fisher said, “"I think not even just the Lakers, but the NBA as a whole, would lose a big part of what this game has been about the last 20 years if he's not back. If he's not back, it changes the whole landscape."

Equally uncertain for the Lakers is the future of their veteran point guard. Fisher is one of five players who can or will become free agents this summer.

As his team limped to a 4-7 finish to the regular season, Fisher heard his fair share of criticism. He was too old to start, too slow defensively and too much of a gunner on offense. Then, with the series on the line in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, he provided the Lakers with an 11 point fourth quarter to make the fans fall in love with him again. A clutch 3-pointer in Game 7 of the Finals cemented it: Fisher needs to stay.

The Lakers “vocal leader” and second coming of Robert Horry averaged a mere 7.5 points on a paltry 38 percent shooting last season. The playoffs were a bit kinder to Fisher, as his averages went up to 10.3 points on 44.8 percent shooting.

Still, how do you quantify a steadying locker room force? Can you put a value on leadership?

Fisher earned more than $5 million this past season and a pay cut is unavoidable. The Lakers veteran point guard loves the purple and gold, but has shown in the past that he will not allow himself to be undervalued by ownership and the franchise.

Joining Fisher in free agency are Josh Powell, Adam Morrison and DJ Mbenga. Jordan Farmar is a restricted free agent, and Shannon Brown can opt out and become a free agent this summer.

While Jackson and Fisher may get the majority of the press this during their respective free agent campaigns, equally as important to the Lakers’ future is what will happen to Brown and Farmar.

Brown, the high-flyer who amazed fans with his acrobatic dunks throughout the year, struggled heavily in the playoffs. He reached his lowest point in Game 5 of the NBA Finals when he played for a mere 19 seconds.

Still, while only making $2 million this past season, he averaged career highs of 8.1 points, 2.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists and .7 steals. In seven games when Bryant was injured, Brown filled the void and averaged 15.3 points and 4.3 rebounds.

Brown appears to be comfortable with the Lakers, but he is also at a point in his career where he will likely get his full worth to shore up someone’s bench. L.A. lost power forward, Ronny Turiaf, to similar circumstances a few seasons ago. Ultimately, it will come down to just how much the Lakers are willing to spend on the talented guard.

The fact that the Lakers supporting cast may look drastically different next season is not lost the athletic guard.

“I think we all realize it," said Lakers point guard Brown, who many expect to opt out of the final year of his contract. Some of us probably think about it more than others. I think it's definitely a realization because if you're talking about three-peating, a lot of the components that you had for the past two years have big decisions to make.

"I'm not thinking about it yet. I'm going to have fun with this process and then figure it out. But it's definitely something people think about."

Meanwhile, point guard Farmar faces similar uncertainty as far as his status with the team next year. As a restricted free agent, the former UCLA guard can have any offer he receives matched by L.A. Nevertheless, it’s accepted around the league that if Farmar signs a particularly lucrative sheet with any team, the Lakers will likely let him leave.

Farmar’s shining moments this year were few and far between.

Sure, there was a 12-point outing on the road in Dallas during the regular season. A 21-point stretch during Games 1 and 2 of the conference finals against the Phoenix Suns. The memorable play in Game 6 of the NBA Finals where he dove after a loose ball.

Yet something has always been off about Farmar. The L.A. born-and-bred youngster, who never made his desire to start in the NBA a secret, also never really came into his own in a Laker uniform. When he first came into the league some noted his combination of speed and athleticism, and hailed him the next coming of Tony Parker. Others pointed to his lack of size, and said he wouldn’t be particularly successful in the triangle.

Now, as a restricted free agent Farmer knows his days in L.A. might be numbered.

"We had a team dinner where we all looked around and said, 'I may not be here, I may not be here, I may not be here,' " point guard Jordan Farmar said during the playoff run.

"We all enjoy each other and want to leave a lasting impression, if it is a last impression. Because you never know how the situation will work itself out. I try not to worry too much about it," Farmar said. "I know I'm going to have a long career in this league. The hard part for me is not knowing whether I'm going to be back or not and able to see my guys. We're all really tight, but we all understand the nature of the business.”

Some of these questions regarding the roster will be answered when the league’s free agency period kicks off July 1.

At the very least, we now realize that there is no such thing as a “relaxing” summer for the world champion Lakers. They may not be involved in the “Lebron James Sweepstakes.” There may not be any prolonged, drawn out negotiations like there were with Lamar Odom last season. And of course, Kobe Bryant will not be going on a radio tour demanding to be traded like he did a mere four summers ago. Still, look for the team to have a very interesting offseseason.