What's next for struggling Lakers?

LOS ANGELES — Dwight Howard pretty much handled Game 4 the way he handled everything else the past eight-plus months.

He passed through.

He took two shots in 20 minutes. He had five turnovers and one assist.

When it might have mattered, he threw one basketball away and failed to catch another.

When it was beginning not to matter, he came out uncertainly on a pick-and-roll and caught windburn from Manu Ginobili, slaloming for a dunk.

His season was over, and he had some sort of exchange with general manager Mitch Kupchak as he left through the tunnel.

But then the fans pointedly rose and screamed as Kobe Bryant dragged himself to the court and sat behind the bench.

Was Bryant aware that, by entering as Howard was leaving, he was staging a metaphor? Hard to know, but there are few accidents with Bryant.

Soon it was over. The Lakers, fated to be the Last Team Standing, became the First Team Gone.

The drama-free Spurs blew them out again, 103-82, in Game 4. In what season will the Lakers make the playoffs again? Next season is nearly six months away but seems overbearingly near.

Howard resolutely refused to answer any questions about free agency. He did talk about "what we all can do to better ourselves," but when someone asked if that meant he was returning, he said, "You're reading too much into it."

"I'm sure it's almost a sigh of relief for him," said Antawn Jamison, "that he gets an opportunity to recuperate mentally and get healthy. It's tough, dealing with all the media and his best friend Mr. Bryant over here, but it's what you have to deal with. We have pretty good lives.

"We never had the chemistry. And now you have a team (San Antonio) that's had chemistry for 18 or 19 years against a team that was just put together."

That team, to be fair, fell apart before it could challenge the Spurs. "It wasn't a fair fight," acknowledged Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

And no one knows what a healthy Bryant could have wrought, especially with Steve Nash, Metta World Peace and Steve Blake.

But the whole thing was a failed experiment, with one constant and too many variables.

The Lakers (A) brought a 39-year-old point guard and (B) an offensively challenged, immature center coming off back surgery, then (C) fired coach Mike Brown after five games that included one half from Nash before they (D) hired Mike D'Antoni, which meant (E) they had to merge two contradictory coaching staffs and then (F) find a useful function for an All-Star and two-time champion Pau Gasol before (G) Bryant's unholy workload finally snapped his Achilles' near the end of probably the best 17th NBA season anyone has ever had.

Some of the problems were anticipated. But no one, myself included, thought the Lakers would fail to figure it out.

But that belief was based on Nash repeating his excellent 2011-12 season and Howard being what he was supposed to be.

"It was like a nightmare, a bad dream," Howard said, "and we couldn't wake up from it."

There is no calculating what Howard's aching back and shoulder cost him. And he did lead the NBA in rebounding, after all.

But he also was a reservoir of bad foul shooting, rookie-caliber offensive fouls and oft-reluctant defense.

The great centers never stood there like gargoyles, even Shaquille O'Neal. Howard's next employer has to realize that he must be the centerpiece, unless he somehow changes.

The Lakers had plenty of time to contemplate the end and to spot a rainbow. D'Antoni said Nash told him how excited he was to bounce back in 2013-14. Jamison said he saw "possibilities" here, given a stable coaching staff and a plausible game plan.

Should the Lakers go to the wall to make Howard a part of it and, if they do, does that justify trading Pau Gasol, and all his noble qualities?

It would lift a large cloud over this franchise if they didn't, and if they came up with a team that can feel comfortable in its own skin, and in the same tunnel.

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