TORONTO - And so begins the autopsy of the L.A. Lakers: The questions that arenít so easily answered, the future that is so uncertain that virtually any move is possible and the debate as to whether Kobe Bryant will ever win that elusive sixth championship.
Whatever unfolds in an off-season that officially began around the time midnight struck on Monday ó a time that would usher in the post-season end for the Lakers ó this much is certain: Changes are afoot, changes that could potentially reshape this iconic hoops franchise.
ďCome hell or high water, weíre going to be there again,Ē an emphatic Bryant said in the immediate aftermath of his teamís five-game loss to the OKC Thunder, a team that now gets set to play the San Antonio Spurs with a berth in the NBA final on the line.
Thereís no youth in L.A. like there is with the Thunder, no depth like they have in San Antonio and no immediate remedy for all that ails the Lakers.
Whether itís as early as the June draft or as late as the next preseason, Pau Gasol is all but done as a Laker, his time in Los Angeles sealed when Bryant called out this one-time dominant big man for lacking aggression following a Game 4 loss to the Thunder.
Andrew Bynum, as mercurial as any player in the NBA, may have also played his final game in purple and gold.
About the only one capable of stopping Bynum is Bynum himself, a centre so good that perhaps he needs a change in scenery to escape Bryantís shadow and start forging his own legacy.
Thereís an option, worth roughly $16 million, the Lakers must exercise ó and will surely initiate ó before the end of next month on Bynum, but that doesnít mean a trade canít be worked out.
With Dwight Howard believed to be in play now that Orlando is cleaning house, the Superman to La La Land rumours will only intensify as the NBAís off-season plays itself out.
ďItís kind of unfamiliar territory,Ē Bryant began as he began to survey the Lakers landscape, one that now sports a 5-11 record in L.A.ís last three post-season series.
ďIím really not used to it. Itís pretty odd for me. Iím not the most patient of people and the organizationís not extremely patient, either. We want to win and win now. Iím sure weíll figure it out. We always have and Iím sure we will again.Ē
Bryant isnít going anywhere, of course, but the same canít be said for his teammates.
When L.A. was poised to play host to Denver and Game 7 of the opening round of the post-season, former Lakers great and team executive Magic Johnson opined that a loss would spell the end of head coach Mike Brown, who replaced Phil Jackson and didnít have either the necessary time to establish his way nor the pieces to pick up where the Zen Master left off when Jackson took his multiple championship rings back into retirement.
The Spurs arenít getting any younger, but their place in NBA history will be established if a fifth title under Tim Duncanís tenure is won.
Oklahoma City is young, playoff-tested and equipped to become the power team in the West, leaving a team such as the Lakers to somehow match explosive weapons with the Thunder in the coming years.
ďI donít know,Ē Bryant said when asked about challenging the Thunder, a team that pushed the Lakers to six games. ďItís a similar question somebody asked earlier. Itís tough to really process (shortly after being eliminated) exactly what we need with improvements and what area we need to improve on.
ďBut thatís something that weíll definitely think through and weíve really been great at as an organization. Mitch has really done a phenomenal job this past decade in building title teams pretty quickly. We just have to do it again.Ē
Bryant was referring to L.A. GM Mitch Kupchak, who isnít afraid to make bold moves.
Moves are coming because they must be made, as the career clock on Bryant, who turns 34 this August, is now ticking.
ďWeíve got to be committed to each other,Ē Metta World Peace said. ďThis year, we wasnít as committed collectively and that hurt us a lot.Ē
From the moment a proposed deal that would have fetched Chris Paul got nixed, there was a disconnect with this Lakers unit.
Given how things ended, it never was properly addressed and now the organization has an off-season to get its house in order.
Everyone in the NBA will be watching because no team carries as much clout as the Lakers.
GASOL'S LAKER DAYS NUMBERED
What was considered the NBAís best one-two punch is on the verge of receiving a knock-out punch.
Had Pau Gasol not arrived in Hollywood, Kobe Bryant would not have added two championships to a career resume that now features five.
In Gasol, Bryant had that much-needed big man who fit in perfectly under Phil Jacksonís triangle offence, a system that demands a high basketball IQ.
But now that the Lakers have been eliminated for the second time in as many post-seasons, Gasol looms as the most likely player on L.A.ís roster to get moved.
There will be no shortage of suitors for Gasol, who could end up anywhere except back in Los Angeles.
Baggage got aired last year when the Lakers exited the playoff scene so shamefully against Dallas and more dirt is sure to get thrown as another long off-season awaits.
Gasol is far from done, but itís become painfully obvious that he needs a new home, one that will properly showcase his talents.
In 12 playoff games this spring, Gasol produced just one 20-point effort, while posting as few as three rebounds and as many as 17.
In the five games played against Oklahoma City, Gasol never attempted more than five free throws in any game, while averaging 10.8 shots from the field and 12.0 points.
ďItís been tough for me,Ē Gasol said following L.A.ís Game 5 elimination to OKC. ďIíve been in a facilitating role most of the year. Iíve been pretty much the third option most of the year.Ē
And now heís become a trade option.