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HOW THE MIGHTY HAVE FALLEN
ONE YEAR AFTER A TRIP TO THE NBA FINALS, THE LAKERS HAVE HAD AN EPIC COLLAPSE

Not quite three years ago, the Los Angeles Lakers paraded down Figueroa Street in Los Angeles and through the hearts of a city after winning a third consecutive NBA championship, as Shaquille O'Neal cracked jokes, Phil Jackson smiled warmly and Kobe Bryant proclaimed, "Let's do it again next year!"

It didn't happen again, and it might not for a while.

The Lakers managed to make it to the NBA Finals last season before losing to the Detroit Pistons, but Tuesday night they completed an epic collapse, failing to make the playoffs for only the fourth time in their 45 years in Los Angeles.

It is the latest sneaker to drop in a soap opera that featured three successive championships, which once again made the Lakers one of the hottest properties in sports.

But their swift decline -- they are only the seventh finalist in league history to miss the playoffs the following season -- has left the Lakers with unsold seats at home games and facing tough financial rules that keep teams from rebuilding quickly.

Owner Jerry Buss had envisioned the team remaining in playoff contention year after year as a fun-to-follow, run-and-gun team, but they are none of the above as a leg injury hobbled Bryant and an uninspiring roster played out the string for a coach whose contract expires in three months.

The season was preceded by an onerous summer in which the Lakers did not retain Jackson, who guided them to four trips to the Finals in five years, and traded O'Neal, one of the best big men ever to play basketball, for three non-All-Stars. (The Miami Heat, meanwhile, is challenging for the league's best record with O'Neal leading the charge.)

Expectations remained high, fueled by Buss' proclamations that rebuilding was not an option and that the Lakers would try to maintain standards of playoff excellence.

But the season took an unsteady turn when new coach Rudy Tomjanovich resigned in February, citing mental and physical fatigue only 43 games into a five-year, $30 million contract. Career assistant Frank Hamblen took his place.

The Lakers, out of the playoff hunt for the first time since 1994, are in 11th place in the Western Conference.

Buss, through team spokesmen, has declined numerous requests to be interviewed in recent weeks.

"We're never going to be pleased with not making the playoffs," General Manager Mitch Kupchak said Tuesday in a brief interview. "That's just the way it is."

In February, Laker minority owner Magic Johnson said: "We don't want another year like this ever again. It's been a roller coaster ride that we're not used to. Normally, other teams have this."

With two weeks left in the regular season, the Lakers were eliminated against the Western Conference-leading Suns, a track team in basketball shoes averaging 110 points a game.

The Lakers, by comparison, have been unable to recreate a modern-day version of Buss' beloved "Showtime" teams of the 1980s, which had Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and five championship trophies.

Repairs might take years because the Lakers have little financial flexibility under the salary cap, a spending limit imposed by the league. In addition, their draft position -- to be determined by weighted lottery -- is unlikely to be among the first few selections, and the free-agent market is weaker than when O'Neal was lured from Orlando in 1996.

Bryant remains the team cornerstone at age 26. But some teammates were annoyed by his attempts to lead by chiding them on the practice court and hogging the ball in games. Last week, point guard Chucky Atkins derisively referred to Bryant, the league's second-leading scorer, as the team's general manager.

Bryant also has been at the center of other tiffs during the season. Seattle guard Ray Allen, after exchanging words with Bryant during a preseason game in October, predicted he would become selfish and demand a trade within a year or two if the Lakers were failing. (Bryant's contract includes a no-trade clause for the next two seasons.)

A month later, Bryant accused former Laker forward Karl Malone of hitting on his wife, Vanessa, at a Lakers game. Malone, who retired during the season, denied the accusation.

O'Neal, Bryant's most famous antagonist, was shipped off, but the trade has proved one-sided.

Forward Brian Grant, one of three players acquired in the deal, has been slowed by severe tendinitis in his right knee and has averaged less than four points per game. He is guaranteed $14.3 million next season and $15.4 million in 2006-07. Lamar Odom, another forward who arrived in the trade, was seen as a frontcourt complement to Bryant but has been overshadowed by Bryant's strong personality both on and off the court. He has four years and $51.2 million left on his contract.

Other newcomers have struggled as well. Atkins and center Chris Mihm, who were career part-timers before being thrust into the starting lineup in November, faded down the stretch.

The Lakers also must come up with a long-term plan for Caron Butler, one of the few Lakers to finish strong. A young and energetic forward, Butler is a restricted free agent after next season and an offer from another team could force the Lakers into another long-term deal.

Veteran fan favorite Vlade Divac, who returned to the Lakers after eight seasons, was a disappointment. He averaged less than one point in only nine games because of a back injury and is due $5.4 million next season, though the Lakers could buy him out for $2 million.

Another question mark is forward Devean George, who has played only seven games because of complications from offseason ankle surgery. George has the option of returning for $5 million.

If George stays, he won't be surrounded by any free-agent prizes. Times have changed since the Lakers swooped in and signed O'Neal in 1996.

The Lakers are hemmed in by the salary cap of $43 million. Also, there are financial incentives for players to re-sign when their contracts expire.

Bryant, for example, weighed two concrete offers when he tested the free-agent market last summer: He could have signed with the Clippers for about $100 million over six years, the most they could have offered, or re-signed with the Lakers for seven years, $136.4 million, their maximum allowable bid.

He chose the Lakers . . . and the money, and the extra year on his contract.

"It's safe to say that one of the goals of the last collective bargaining agreement was to create incentive for players to stay with their current team," NBA spokesman Tim Frank said. "Teams build equity in their players and we want to give teams the best chance to re-sign their current players."

The Lakers are also looking for a coach. Remote scenarios include Jackson returning or Larry Brown being wooed away from the Detroit Pistons; more likely, the choice will be an up-and-coming pro assistant.

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