While it's impossible to quantify, the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers may have been the most covered team in modern sports history.
Ripe with internal conflict, disappointing performances on the floor and injuries to legendary players, the Lakers had all the plots of a bad sports movie tied into one season. Only there was no Walt Disney tying the purse strings together for a happy ending. Los Angeles' loss on Friday night puts the team down 3-0 in its first-round playoff series with the San Antonio Spurs, putting the team on the precipice of a sweep.
Lakers fans remember the last time their team was jettisoned in four games all too well. That series—a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Dallas in 2011—led to the departure of Phil Jackson and Lamar Odom, two familiar faces who helped lead the Lakers to multiple championships.
With all of the drama surrounding this particular team, an equal amount of turnover could be impending. Jackson's name has been floating around for the better part of a year now, with the Zen Master "itching" for an NBA return.
And with Dwight Howard hitting free-agency, Kobe Bryant going down with an injury and Pau Gasol's future up in the air, this is a disconcerting time within the organization. No one knows what's coming next, just that chaos is inevitable.
With the Lakers on the brink of a playoff exit, let's take a look at all the latest rumblings and news coming out of Los Angeles.
D'Antoni and Kobe News Roundup
While there aren't any rumors necessarily floating around the Lakers' two most talked-about names, we would be remiss if we didn't at least check in and give the latest news on their statuses. So here is a quick breakdown on the Lakers head coach's chances of returning next season and the most recent look at Bryant's injury prognosis.
D'Antoni Will Return as Lakers Head Coach
There's a difference between speculation and rumors. Speculation is what you or I do at a bar with a couple Guinness drafts in our system. Rumors are what reporters in the field hear from their sources, non-binding nuggets of information that may lead to actual news at a later date.
Speculation has been never-ending about the Lakers firing Mike D'Antoni after a dismal part-season as head coach. Rumors, however, have been negligible. Lakers brass (unsurprisingly) has stuck by him the entire way, supporting the controversial coach through times good and bad.
So when asked last week about D'Antoni's job status, general manager Mitch Kupchak made it abundantly clear he would return in 2013-14.
"Yeah, he's back. I think he's done a great job," Kupchak said (via the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan). "There's been no discussions otherwise."
This varies little from what the organization said during the regular season, so it should come as no shock. D'Antoni, for all of his flaws with over-playing stars and slow adjustments, did undergo a massive transformation this season. Though it took him too long to do so, D'Antoni adjusted from his four-out, one-in spread offensive attack and tried to implement a scheme that fit his players.
Considering he didn't even get a training camp in 2012-13, D'Antoni deserves a shot to prove himself in Los Angeles the right way.
Kobe's Cast Comes Off, Boot Comes On His Injured Achilles
When he's not inciting a near riot for his live tweeting during Lakers games, Kobe Bryant is recovering from a devastating Achilles tear. The 34-year-old future Hall of Famer went down a little over two weeks ago with the injury, which will keep him out the next six-to-nine months.
With surgery out of the way and the long road to recovery beginning, Bryant has begun tweeting out his progress—to much less controversial reaction. A mere 10 days after undergoing surgery, Bryant tweeted out earlier this week that his cast is off and he was now using a walking boot.
Though the cast removal was standard process, it has to be comforting news that Bryant has "zero swelling and virtually no pain." There was little question the legendary competitor in No. 24 would push himself toward the early return point, which would put him right in line with the beginning of the 2013-14 season.
That Halloween night is a long ways away. But for now, there is at least an inkling of hope sprinkling out of a dire situation.
Lakers Have "No Suitable Role" For Phil Jackson?
Mike D'Antoni may have security in the eyes of Lakers brass but that doesn't mean fans are remotely happy about it. The Staples Center crowd has let their displeasure with D'Antoni be known on more than one occasion, booing his roster lineup decisions and blaming him for the injury of Kobe Bryant.
Whether that's fair or not is up for discussion. But Lakers fans have made no qualms about who they want running this organization, and it's an awfully familiar, stoic face.
From the moment Mike Brown was fired after a 1-4 start and Phil Jackson's name was floated as a potential replacement, no other coach was going to be good enough. It was Jackson who had guided the Lakers to five NBA championships in 11 seasons at the helm, legendarily controlling the Black Mamba the way no one else could.
And when Jackson made an appearance at Staples Center for Shaquille O'Neal's jersey retirement ceremony, Lakers fans hijacked the event to tell Phil just how much they wanted him back. Los Angeles only ramped up its fervor on Friday night, again chanting "We want Phil" as the Lakers went down 3-0 in their first-round series against the Spurs.
Unfortunately, it looks like Lakers fans will again be disappointed. According to ESPN's Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne, Jackson is "highly unlikely" to return:
The chances of hiring Jackson, for any team, would seem to be enhanced by the fact that the Lakers don't have a suitable role to offer him at this time. Although Jackson did speak with Lakers management about replacing Brown in November before the club hired Mike D'Antoni, sources close to the situation say that a return to Los Angeles is highly unlikely.
The possibility of Jackson returning has been a pipe dream from the moment Los Angeles chose D'Antoni over the Zen Master back in November. Jim and Jeannie Buss, the latter being Jackson's fiancé, have barely communicated since the former's decision to spurn Jackson—a tenuous relationship only made worse by these mitigating circumstances.
Jackson will likely be back in the NBA for the 2013-14 season. Whether that's on the bench or in the front office remains to be seen, but either way he won't be doing it for the Lakers organization.
Dwight Howard Plans to Re-Sign With Lakers This Summer?
Jackson pipe dreams aside, Lakers fans have spent their entire 2012-13 season hoping on definitive word about Dwight Howard's plans for next year. Always giving half-answers and non-replies, Howard allowed the situation to become a distraction by actively trying to avoid a distraction.
It's funny how that works.
But with the Lakers on the precipice of an ouster from the playoffs and Jackson's return looking unlikelier than ever, Howard's story will again be at the forefront. He wont' be able to make a formal decision until the new league year starts in July, but many re-signings happen in principle before they can get done officially.
If recent reports prove correct, Howard and the Lakers may get to work on hashing out a new deal once the team is eliminated. According to USA Today's Sam Amick, two sources close to D12 expect the All-Star center to be a Laker for 2013-14 and beyond:
While the center who will be a free agent this summer has continued his noncommittal stance about whether he will sign with the Lakers or head elsewhere, two people close to him said they fully expect him to return. The people spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity out of respect for Howard's decision to wait until the summer to make his final choice.
Even as Howard oscillated between stances, his decision to return seemed like a 75-25 proposition at worst all season. No matter how bad things got between Howard and Bryant—and they got pretty bad at one point—the Lakers always had a $30 million carrot hanging over the 27-year-old's head.
As part of the new collective bargaining agreement, Los Angeles can offer Howard a maximum contract of five years worth $117.9 million. All other 29 franchises are limited to a four-year deal worth $87.8 million. Couple the extra year of financial security with being in a major media market—one of Howard's biggest desires—and it's easy to see why he would want to stick around.
Pau Gasol One of "Likeliest" Players to be Moved This Summer?
While the future of Dwight Howard is slowly coming into focus, his frontcourt mate is about to wade into a murky offseason. The subject of countless trade rumors during the season, it's possible Gasol was saved from being jettisoned due to an injury.
As luck would have it, the Lakers were likely saved from selling an All-Star caliber player for 50 cents on the dollar. After looking tentative during his first few games back in the lineup, Gasol re-emerged as a star down the stretch for the Lakers. He averaged 17.5 points, 12.1 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game over Los Angeles' final eight regular season contests, helping spur the Lakers to a playoff berth after Bryant went down with an injury.
With his playoff performance leaving much to be desired, though, Gasol's name continues to come up as possible summer trade bait. Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports mentioned the seven-footer as one of the most likely names to get moved this summer, citing the Lakers' untenable salary cap situation.
Not including a potential Howard extension, the Lakers already have $78.1 million committed for next season—a mark that puts them over the luxury tax. When adding in Howard's expected salary and holds for other players remaining on the roster, the roster could approach $100 million in total costs. Add that to a prohibitive luxury tax that penalizes teams exorbitant figures for being over the tax and the 2013-14 team could be the most expensive in league history.
Even for a team with the cash flow of the Lakers, that's a problem. While some would argue that amnestying Kobe Bryant is the smartest possible move, there's no chance in hell that's happening. More likely is the Lakers will find a partner to take on Gasol, whose $19.29 million cap figure is an expiring contract.
Then again, Bryant himself hasn't seemed too keen of the trading Gasol idea:
It's more likely than not Gasol is gone after the Lakers are eliminated. But the possibility looms that the Buss family takes the hit, cuts the check and keeps the roster the same in hopes of competing in the second year of this experiment.