- The Washington Times - Monday, June 15, 2009

ORLANDO, Fla. | Speculation over the future of the Los Angeles Lakers abounded as they approached the finish line in their quest for the 15th title in franchise history.

Phil Jackson has been plagued by an ailing hip and has hinted at retirement even though he’s under contract through the 2009-10 season, so will he call it quits now that he has won his record 10th ring?

Will the Lakers be able to re-sign free agents Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom this offseason? Ariza made $3 million this season and is due for a big deal this summer. Odom made roughly $11.4 million this season and likely will command a high salary on the open market.

Will Kobe Bryant choose to play out the final two seasons of his current contract, which would pay him $47.8 million over the next two seasons? Or will he opt out to become a free agent, which would enable him to sign a five-year deal with either the Lakers or another team?

Jackson hasn’t publicly addressed his future, saying his focus was squarely on beating the Orlando Magic, which happened Sunday night as the Lakers completed the 4-1 series win.

But Bryant said he finds all the speculation both amusing and unnecessary. He didn’t quite say it but implied he has no plans of leaving the Lakers.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he first said with a laugh when asked about whether he had a decision to make this summer about his future. He then added: “It won’t be a topic. Won’t be an issue.”

Bryant in 2004 flirted with the Los Angeles Clippers before re-signing with the Lakers for a seven-year deal worth more than $136.4 million. When asked whether he could imagine playing for any team other than the Lakers, he simply replied: “No.”

Bryant also said he couldn’t imagine playing for anyone other than Jackson, who has coached him nine of the last 10 years.

“I’ve been spoiled my whole career playing with Phil. … I grew up with him,” Bryant said. “I think he’s just more amused by everybody thinking that he’s thinking that [he may retire]. He’s really just in the moment.”

The first five seasons of their relationship had a degree of friction to it; Bryant wanted to be the Lakers’ go-to player instead of playing second fiddle to Shaquille O’Neal.

“That was a contentious point for us when I first got here because I felt that there were a lot of times Kobe was trying to commandeer games,” Jackson said.

But since Jackson returned from his one-year retirement to coach the 2005-06 season, Bryant has gained a better appreciation for his coach and his philosophies, and Bryant has become a more well-rounded, effective player. The relationship has also progressed to the point that they are close off the court as well.

“I think the second time around it became more of a personal relationship, us having been around each other, then having this new group of guys, guys that we both had to lead,” Bryant said. “I think the relationship has carried over to off the court, whereas in the past it’s always just been more of an X’s and O’s kind of relationship.”

Van Gundy gets defensive

Although his team entered Sunday night’s Game 5 of the NBA Finals down 3-1 and facing elimination, Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said he isn’t upset with how his Magic have played.

Van Gundy said aside from the 25-point blowout loss in Game 1, Orlando had played well and given itself a chance to win each game.

In Game 2, a missed acrobatic layup by Orlando rookie Courtney Lee at the buzzer led to overtime, in which Los Angeles ended up posting a 13-8 scoring advantage and won 101-96. Orlando won Game 3 108-104. Then the Magic lost 99-91 in overtime after missing free throws in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Van Gundy dismissed the notion that his team wasn’t able to capitalize in clutch moments because of the experience edge the Lakers hold over the Magic.

“It’s a basketball game,” Van Gundy said. “These guys have played hundreds of them, thousands of them. Most of these guys have been in huge games. You know, it’s just too cliche that it’s all about finals experience and the whole thing, as if all of a sudden we’re playing with 11-foot baskets and a smaller court or something like that. I don’t buy it.”

Runs of 16-0 and 18-8 by the Lakers put Game 5 out of reach well before the final buzzer.

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