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Westhem: Lakers full of question marks moving forward

As a die-hard Lakers fan and fourth-generation Los Angeles native this is really painful for me to admit, but it seems that a new era of Los Angeles dominance in the NBA might be about to peak — and sadly, I’m not referring to the Lakers.

With their acquisition of Doc Rivers as head coach and a young roster full of talent — need I remind you of the indomitable duo of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul? — the Clippers may be moving in as the premier NBA team of LA — a position that the Lakers have held since … well, forever.

The Lakers have experienced (or have attempted to experience) most of their success through big-name stars with high price tags, such as Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace (MWP), Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, without taking into account that those players will eventually get old and leave the team with a giant luxury tax, a sub-par roster and little room or money to acquire new players.

Now, the Lakers organization will be forced to build a team organically through the draft if it wishes to reassert its former glory and surround Bryant with capable players in his years before retirement.

And so this is the problem facing the Lakers with the departure of Howard to the Rockets and the question of whether to use the amnesty provision with MWP** (or Ron Artest as I still call him because I can’t get over the ludicrous name change).

Still, my loyalty to the Lakers is unwavering. My first NBA game was Game 5 of the 2008 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics, which the Lakers won 103-98. The Lakers would ultimately go on to lose the series in Game 6, but would come back to win two consecutive NBA Finals, ensuring that head coach Phil Jackson would stay another year to try to win a third consecutive title.

When the Lakers were swept in the second round of the 2011 playoffs, however, I couldn’t help but question whether they could ever attain their former glory. It’s hard to bounce back after winning the Finals twice in a row, being embarrassed the next year, and then losing one of the winningest coaches, with 11 NBA titles (five with the Lakers), in basketball history.

And that’s where the Lakers’ slippery slope began. The team did not fare well under Jackson’s successor, Mike Brown, posting only a .417 win percentage during the playoffs. I, along with many other Lakers fans, assumed that things could only improve after Brown was fired before the end of his second season.

Wrong.

The Lakers barely made it to the playoffs this past season despite having Bryant flanked by the Lakers’ newest additions of Nash and Howard. Considering Nash’s age and Howard’s inconsistency, these were risky acquisitions to begin with. However, the trade — or lack thereof — that really broke the camel’s back for the Lakers was Chris Paul going to the Clippers.

I’m still mad at Commissioner David Stern for blocking the Lakers’ trade for Paul. Who is he to play God?

But even before that, the Lakers were in trouble when No. 10 draft pick Andrew Bynum’s career became plagued by knee injuries in just his second season with the Lakers. Bynum was supposed to be the next superstar center for the Lakers after O’Neal. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out so well and Bynum spent more time on the bench than on the court. Gasol was able to step up in his absence, but without a true center, the Lakers were in trouble.

So now we’re faced with the Lakers’ current dilemma: the loss of yet another center, Dwight Howard. Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar berated Howard as “a perfect example of the fact that ‘potential has a shelf life.’” Shaquille O’Neal also chimed in that “not a whole lot of people can handle being under the bright lights.”

Although Howard had his share of injuries (back and shoulder), he provided the Lakers with solid defense, put opposing players in foul trouble early on, and contributed under the basket with rebounds and by preventing defensive second-chance points. The Lakers’ already hurting defense (which would have ranked 29th in the league last season without him on the floor) is going to be in a lot more pain next season without him on the roster.

Which brings us to the Lakers’ next big question mark: the amnestying of MWP, who has been a strong starter at the small forward position during his stint with the Lakers dating back to 2009. This past season, MWP averaged 12.5 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. However, Bryant fears that the Lakers may turn their back on MWP in favor of saving $15 million in luxury taxes, despite Bryant’s support for keeping him.

With the current acquisition of center Chris Kaman to replace Howard, the Lakers’ biggest problem could be the loss of MWP, whose three-point shot in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals clinched the win against the Celtics. MWP, besides his perimeter shooting, also provides a huge burst of energy on the defensive end, averaging just under two steals per game, and his absence would leave a gaping hole in the Lakers’ starting lineup for the 2013-14 season.

If Bryant can recover quickly from his torn achilles injury, 39-year-old Nash can stay injury free and Gasol can successfully step back into the spotlight, the Lakers might have a chance to compete in the Western Conference. If not, and the season tanks, then at least we Lakers fans have the consolation that we’ll probably get the first round 2014 draft pick — and it’s frightening to think that the fate of the Lakers might come down to that.

As a Lakers fan who has been following the team since the Shaquille O’Neal, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Robert Horry and, of course, Kobe Bryant era, I’m not going anywhere, but (although I hope I’m wrong) it’s hard to imagine that the glory days of Lakers basketball will last much longer. A changing of the guard is already underway in LA — I just can’t wait until the Lakers reclaim their dominance and sit atop the Clippers once again.

Ashley Westhem hopes the Lakers draft Chiney Ogwumike in the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft to save the franchise. To give her advice for her second round pick, email Ashley at awesthem ‘at’ stanford.edu.

**now that the Lakers have released their decision to amnesty MWP, the fate of the Lakers, once again, rests on the shoulders of Kobe Bryant–granted he recovers in time from achilles surgery to make an impact on the season.

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