EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Lakers have stepped off their wild ride. Their largely disastrous season is finally finished after a first-round playoff sweep.
But the drama that always surrounds this club is merely paused for a few weeks -- maybe less.
The Lakers' off-season could be just as crazy for a franchise that finished one of the most disappointing seasons in NBA history with a winless whimper, not a run at a 17th NBA title.
Dwight Howard's unrestricted free agency, coach Mike D'Antoni's job status, Pau Gasol's tenuous future, Metta World Peace's amnesty possibilities and the injury comebacks of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash are only the biggest issues facing the Lakers as they decide whether to try this grand experiment again.
"We had our sights set on something bigger than this," Nash said Monday. "In many ways, it feels like we never even got started. ... I think the core pieces, with this season under our belt, could come back and form something special. As we saw this year, it's not a perfect fit, but we have great pieces, and we have terrific players that can find a way to make this work."
The Lakers began last fall with championship aspirations and the NBA's largest payroll after adding Howard and Nash alongside Bryant, Gasol, World Peace and a decent group of reserves.
Nothing worked out as almost everybody expected.
After an ominously winless preseason, the Lakers' innumerable injuries and an early-season coaching change meant Los Angeles never established any cohesiveness in a cauldron of high expectations and fan pressure. After dropping to 17-25 in late January, the Lakers finally got it together for a 28-12 rally to the playoffs, but Bryant's absence with a torn Achilles tendon guaranteed they were no match for the San Antonio Spurs.
The Lakers also lost beloved owner Jerry Buss in February after a lengthy illness. The players honoured Buss with a patch on their jerseys, while the owner's children formally took control of the club as it spiraled into disappointment.
"They fought as hard as they could fight, and as a coach, I appreciated it," said D'Antoni, who arrived in Los Angeles last year on crutches, after a recent surgery, to replace Mike Brown. "It was kind of a year that was all upside-down."
The Lakers' exit interviews with management and the coaching staff began their usual two-day grind into the off-season Monday. Howard and Gasol will meet with the brass Tuesday, and general manager Mitch Kupchak is expected to address the future as well. The Lakers haven't said when Bryant will publicly address his 17th NBA season and his injury, which could keep him off the court until opening night -- or January.
Howard has steadfastly deflected questions about free agency all season long, refusing to affirm a commitment to Los Angeles after this season. Although he spoke and tweeted hopefully about the Lakers' future Sunday night, he also said he'll take a couple of weeks off to "clear my head."
The longtime Orlando Magic star could make $118 million over five years to return to Los Angeles, but just $88 million over four years anywhere else. Howard is likely to entertain pitches from other teams when free agency opens in July, which means the Lakers could be forced to make big decisions about their future -- such as whether to use the amnesty clause in mid-July -- before knowing whether Howard will be part of it.
Despite his horrific free-throw shooting and debatable leadership skills, the Lakers hope their gifted shot-blocking centre won't decide to move on to a third team in 12 months.
"I'm very hopeful that Dwight will be back," Nash said Monday. "I think this is the place for him. He's in the prime of his career. He's got his best years ahead of him. He can play for one of the greatest franchises in sports and in an amazing city. This has got to be the place for him, and I'm hopeful that he sees it that way."
The Lakers know they've got payroll issues next season, with more than $30 million due to Bryant, more than $19 million to Gasol, and more than $9 million to Nash before they've even re-signed Howard. That means World Peace, who has a $7.7 million player option for next season, is a candidate for release under the amnesty clause.
So is Gasol, although the Spanish 7-footer proved he's not such a terrible match for D'Antoni late in the season with a string of triple-doubles. Gasol got a standing ovation Sunday when he left the Lakers' final game, but Kupchak is aware of the rarity of Gasol's combination of size and talent.
"I always try to play my best, and as if it is my last game," Gasol said. "I'd like to be part of another championship team here, but it's not totally up to me."
Maybe the biggest disappointment was Nash, who played in just 50 games after breaking his leg in the second game and struggling with hamstring injuries later. The two-time MVP averaged just 12.7 points and 6.7 assists per game.
Even a reunion with D'Antoni didn't totally help the former Phoenix Suns star's transition to a complementary role alongside Bryant and Howard, but Nash is determined to figure it out. He's not taking time off after the season, staying in rehabilitation for his leg injuries with a goal of being completely healthy in a month.
"It's definitely been the most frustrating year of my career, not only with so many expectations to start," Nash said. "I'm definitely going to prepare better than I ever have to try to make this year a distant memory and next year a phenomenal experience."