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Lakers face rough summer, multiple questions heading into next season

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- As the Lakers completed a second day of exit interviews on Tuesday, one problem after another walked -- or limped, in the case of Kobe Bryant -- into a cramped interview room at the team's practice facility.

It was all right there, laid bare for all to see. This is not going to be an easy summer in Lakerland.

Here are some of the problems:

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1) Bryant, vowing to return as some semblance of his former self after rehabbing his surgically repaired Achilles' tendon, wants to bring the band back for one more tour. Bryant made his desire known in his season-ending meeting with GM Mitch Kupchak on Tuesday, and the progress the team made in finishing the season 28-12 and making the playoffs has him believing that the same, core group could contend for a championship next season. "No doubt about it," he said. "... All I can do is just voice my opinion on what I think should be done, but obviously I'm not the one that has to cut the check."

2) Bryant is 34, coming off a debilitating injury and is due $30.5 million next season. "The worst case is what, I lose some athleticism, I lose some speed?" Bryant said. "I see a lot of guys who are not athletic and don't have speed who are still pretty damn good, and I think I'm a little better than them so I think I can adjust."

3) Dwight Howard will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, and once again divulged no clues as to whether he plans to re-sign with the Lakers or not. Worse for the Lakers, he made it clear that he doesn't want to be pressured into making a decision and was adamant that he's in no hurry. "I'm just going to get away and I don't think that I should get pressured from anybody to make a decision, because this decision is for myself and myself only," he said.

4) The Lakers have $79 million on the books for next season, which could come down slightly if they buy out Chris Duhon for the $1.5 million he is guaranteed. If they keep the core group together and re-sign Howard, the only tools they'll have to improve the roster will be trades and minimum contracts -- which, as Kupchak acknowledged on Tuesday, will not get them the kind of youth and athleticism the roster needs. "We're very limited in the exceptions and the mechanisms that the collective bargaining agreement allows us to use to improve the team," Kupchak said.

5) Even if the Lakers accomplish their primary goal this summer -- re-signing Howard -- timing is critical. If Howard allows his status to linger into the first week of free agency, Kupchak will be paralyzed in his efforts to upgrade the roster. The needs of the team are directly in conflict with Howard's personal desire to take his time and make an authentic decision that he can own and feel good about -- something that will blot out the negative publicity and the damage to his image that has followed him to L.A. from Orlando. "I think he understands, the sooner the better for everybody," Kupchak said. "It allows us to plan, it allows him to start putting down roots in the city. ... So it goes without saying, the sooner the better. We're going to encourage him to make his decision in a timely fashion and we're hoping that he chooses to stay in Los Angeles."

6) Short of using the amnesty provision on Bryant -- which would wipe his $30.5 million off the Lakers' books and erase what otherwise would be a $76 million luxury-tax bill if they re-signed Howard -- there is no single transaction that could equip Kupchak with the spending exceptions that are taken away by the new CBA once a team is $4 million or more above the tax line. Asked about amnestying Bryant on Tuesday, Kupchak said, "Can I refer this to Mark Cuban? He's our amnesty expert." Bryant said, "I enjoy that kind of chatter. ... I took notes on who said what."

7) Steve Nash will turn 40 before next season's All-Star break and is coming off the most injury-ravaged season of his career. Trading him will be a challenge, and not even the new "stretch" provision in the CBA would be of much use to the Lakers. If the Lakers waived Nash after July 1, the $19 million left on his contract could be spread out evenly over the next five years -- which would save on the tax bill next season, but limit flexibility in future years and still wouldn't reactivate any tools Kupchak could use to add talent to the roster. "Decisions have to be made that will hopefully be good decisions that are good for the present and good for the future," Kupchak said.

8) Pau Gasol is critical to the Lakers' chances of competing for a championship next season, Bryant said on Tuesday. Gasol also developed into a viable frontcourt partner for Howard -- and, in fact, a person close to Howard said one of the factors in his decision will be to prioritize playing next to another 7-footer. But Gasol will turn 33 in July, was limited by foot injuries all season and is on the books for $19.3 million. "When I met with Mitch, I was pretty clear: I want Pau here," Bryant said. "It's not even a question; it's not a discussion with me. I think he gives us the best chance to win titles. And you bring Dwight back and we're off and running."

If, like Bryant, you buy into the Lakers' late-season success and believe that with a full training camp, a year of adversity behind them and optimal health, they could replicate that over an 82-game schedule, then there's nothing wrong here. As long as the Buss family is willing to foot the bill.

"I think our record was 28-12 the last part of the season," Kupchak said. "That would indicate that this team could contend for a championship. We will be a year older. We do have holes defensively and offensively that we have to try to address. ... But certainly, I don't see any reason why we can't be in the hunt."

But if you are wondering how much of Bryant's Hall of Fame skill will emerge from a lengthy recovery from the Achilles surgery ... how Howard is going to be effective with no shot-makers around him ... whether Nash can still carry the bulk of the playmaking duties at age 40 ... and whether Jim Buss is willing to spend more of his late father's money on luxury tax than at least 25 other teams will spend on payroll next season ... then this is not a pretty picture.

Then, factor in that the Lakers don't know if Howard is coming back at all, or whether he will make his decision in enough time to make the necessary roster decisions accordingly, well, it adds up to two-plus months of misery.

The Lakers have been banking on the fact that the city and the franchise's storied history with 16 championships will carry the day in Howard's decision. And yes, those who know Howard believe it will be extraordinarily difficult for him to walk away.

Bryant had Howard over his house for a bonding session late in the season and is willing to step up and lobby some more. But if Kupchak thinks history alone will be enough to keep Howard, he's sorely mistaken.

Howard wants to win, wants to reverse the damage to his image that suffered so much with his clumsy exit from Orlando. The Lakers past championships -- nine of which were achieved before Howard was born -- aren't going to sway him. For Howard, it has to be about now and the future, and whether the Lakers can contend next season with essentially the same group that dissolved this season into what Howard again described on Tuesday as "a nightmare."

This is Bryant's plan, to take one more shot at his quest for a sixth championship. More than ever, Bryant on Tuesday sounded like a man who was defiantly plotting his comeback -- a comeback that would be for one more year only.

"It's obviously a lot on the table for them with these new penalties and so forth," Bryant said. "It's a tough call to make, but then again, it is one more year. It's one more year; that's how I look at it. It's one more year with this thing. I don't know how I'm going to suit up -- my contract is up next year, Pau's done next year. Hopefully we get Dwight locked up so he's here for a while so the future's kind of set already, and let's take a crack at this thing."

If it doesn't work, only Howard and Nash -- if he's still around -- will be on the Lakers' books in 2014-15, when they'll be in as good a position as any team in the league to reload during a free-agent summer that will include the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

"We're very confident that we can build around Dwight Howard," Kupchak said.

The Lakers are confident that Howard will be back, too. And he probably will. But until he decides, the Lakers are in limbo. If you thought the last six months were bad, just wait for the next two.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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