LOS ANGELES (AP) -Just when it appeared the Los Angeles Lakers were nearing a return to elite status, coach Phil Jackson gave fair warning.
``We're happy for the win, but we're not going to crown ourselves just yet,'' he said 3 1/2 months ago following a 100-96 victory over the Spurs at San Antonio, giving the Lakers their seventh win in nine games and a 26-13 record.
A lot has happened since then - most of it bad. The Lakers lost 27 of their last 43 regular-season games to finish 42-40, and were eliminated by the Phoenix Suns 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs.
So now, following a third straight disappointing season after three championships and another NBA finals berth in a five-year span, it's reasonable to question the Lakers' direction. And that's what Kobe Bryant did after a second straight first-round loss to the Suns.
``Personally for me, it's beyond frustration - three years and still being at ground zero,'' Bryant said. ``This summer's a big summer. We have to see what direction we want to take as an organization and make those steps and make them now.''
The Lakers won 20 playoff series from 2000-04, with Jackson, Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal leading the way. They've won four postseason games and no series in the past three years.
O'Neal was traded away after the Lakers lost to Detroit in the 2004 NBA finals - a move the Lakers couldn't avoid since he wanted out and had they kept him, Bryant might have moved across town to the Clippers.
Bryant decided to stay, signing a seven-year contract for maximum money, and led the NBA in scoring the past two seasons. But as he pointed out, the supporting cast has had its limitations, and that was never more evident than Wednesday night, when Bryant and Lamar Odom combined for 67 of the team's 110 points and a leaky defense allowed 119.
And that meant season over.
While injuries played a part in the Lakers' demise, so did front-office errors. The draft picks of the past three years have made little impact to date, and Aaron McKie and Vladimir Radmanovic, the primary free-agent acquisitions the past two years, have been complete busts.
Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown, Luke Walton and Radmanovic were hampered by various injuries this season, and Chris Mihm didn't play at all.
``I would love to have seen what we could have done had we had the whole team all season long,'' Brown said. ``We had so many guys out of the rotation. Every time you lose, everyone wants to see changes. I would love to see what will happen if we all come back.''
Even if everybody does - and that won't happen - the Lakers don't appear to have what it takes as currently constructed to make a significant jump in a strong Western Conference next year. Their success early this season was helped in part by a favorable schedule.
Despite having a superstar such as Bryant and the outstanding track records of Jackson and owner Jerry Buss, there doesn't appear to be a lot the Lakers can do to improve their stock right away.
They're over the salary cap, so they can't add high-priced free agents. It's possible Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O'Neal and Jason Kidd could be acquired in a trade, but who do the Lakers give up? They don't have much to offer beyond Bryant, Odom and 19-year-old Andrew Bynum, who might be a star someday but isn't close now.
Brown wasn't the same after severely spraining his left ankle Dec. 31, and probably faces offseason surgery. He had his moments, but that's how his career has gone. Brown has one year remaining on his contract.
Odom had several significant injuries during the season, yet for the most part, did an excellent job against the Suns. He has two years left on his contract.
Mihm, still recovering from an injured foot, certainly would have helped. Mihm and Walton are unrestricted free agents the Lakers might try to re-sign. The other three unrestricted free agents on the roster - guards Smush Parker, Shammond Williams and McKie - almost surely won't return.
``I told this team we'll make changes,'' Jackson said following the Game 5 loss at Phoenix. ``We'll meet as an organization, as a team and individuals in the subsequent days, and we'll talk about that.''
Jackson expressed disappointment with the way the season ended.
``There wasn't one thing we could blame,'' he said. ``We could look at injuries. It was a much-injured front line that was out there, but we let it affect us as a basketball team, also. We weren't resilient enough to recover after those injuries and play the way we should play down the stretch. We thought we backed into the playoffs instead of coming in with the kind of speed we wanted to come in with to finish the year.
``Last year, I thought we showed the ability to come through a season and finish strong. This year due to injuries and some of the things that happened to us, I don't think that we finished with the kind of cohesion I like as a basketball team.''

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