Heisler: Twinkle, twinkle, L.A. stars, how we wonder where … you are going

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Skid Row, downtown Los Angeles

Meanwhile, along the old, deserted, weed-infested, beer bottle-strewn route into the setting sun….

Welcome to L.A., backwater of the West, with the road to the Finals now running through towns in Oklahoma and Texas, far from the glitter of Staples Center.

Wait, you’re not talking about the Lakers and Clippers, home of four starting West All-Stars, are you?

OK, backwater might be a bit much, but stay tuned.

Whatever it is, it bears less and less resemblance to the years between Magic Johnson’s rookie triumph in 1980 and the last waltz with the Celtics in 2010 when the Lakers played in 19 West Finals, 17 NBA Finals and won 10 titles.

If we now have two sparkly teams instead of a dynasty and a joke, neither the Kobe-Drew-Pau Lakers nor the CP3-Blake Clippers made the West Finals.

Nor will either be favored to make it next season with the Thunder coming of age and the Spurs bringing back the team that finished nine games ahead of the Lakes and 10 ahead of the Clips.

So what’s the problem in La-La Land?

Hey, nothing is forever, even (thank heavens, you’re thinking), not even us….

Laker fans and the local press blame Jim Buss, the owner’s son, for trashing their team… they wish.

This is actually a desperate hope, carrying the hope that all it would take to bring back the glory days would be for Jim’s dad to reassume control.

In the bad news, Jerry Buss never left, continuing to signing off on all moves.

It wasn’t enough, and, with their aging, hulking team two years into a down cycle, it might not be enough if they rehired Phil Jackson, Jerry West and Pat Riley, in tandem.

Jim isn’t a wild child, running around the office barking orders, but part of a process that includes his father, GM Mitch Kupchak–and Kobe Bryant, whose advice is now solicited for the first time.

Right or wrong (my pick), if it’s time, or past time, to break up this nucleus, the Lakers may not have the stomach, or budget, for it.

If Dwight Howard is available with the Magic aware it can’t get anyone better than Andrew Bynum, Dwight has yet to express any interest in the Lakes, who no longer do back flips at the thought of getting him.

The Lakers aren’t in the hunt for Deron Williams. Unless they get overtheir disinclination to offer anything longer than a two-year deal, they won’t be competitive for more attractively-priced point guards Steve Nash, Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic.

Barring a shakeup, the Lakers would be bringing back their aging, hulking team, a year older, plus Sessions and someone like Nick Young or Brandon Rush–while the NBA’s top teams turn it up in what used to be Laker Ball, like Miami which went to small, LeBron James jumped center much of the playoffs.

In the worst news of all for Laker fans, even Young, Rush and Michael Beasley may be out of their new price range.

Despite having netted over $350 million the last 10 seasons, according to Forbes, and starting a local TV mega-deal that will add $120 million annually to their bottom line… the Lakers are facing, or cowering before, the new punitive luxury tax.

With the added punitive penalty for teams that pay tax five seasons in a row—as the Lakes have for 15 in a row—the team is determined to get under the threshold by 2014, when all its contracts will have expired, including Bryant’s.

Otherwise, in addition to the $3.50 per $1 assessed on teams that are $15 million over–as the Lakers are now—the tab would be $4.50 per $1 over.

The Lakers won’t offer anything longer than two years to anyone, with one presumed exception: Andrew Bynum, whose deal runs out in 2013.

Gasol’s deal run out in 2013, at which time he’ll walk, go in a sign-and-trade, or take a massive pay cut… if, in fact, he’s still there.

Not that the Lakes will stop talking titles or raising ticket prices or putting any disappointment on Mike Brown, who won’t survive another second-round exit or, perhaps, any exit at all.

Unfortunately, they’ll no longer have the best team their money can buy, just the best they can think they can afford.

On the other hand, the Clippers’ fortunes look bright, with Blake Griffin expected to sign his extension any day.

Unfortunately, the usual peril looms ever more menacingly, in two words and one letter: Donald T. Sterling.

After decades of faint, or no faith in his front office, Donald is trying it a new way: addition by subtraction.

GM Neil Olshey, whose adept moves landed Chris Paul, could have been re-signed at any point last season when he’d have taken three years at $2 million and kissed Sterling’s shoes.

Instead, the Don let his deal run out, as the Don always does, before worrying about signing him.

Unfortunately, Portland’s Paul Allen stepped in, as someone so often has, offering Olshey three years at $3.6 million and leaving the Clips, finally, formally leaderless.

Actually, team Pres. Andy Roeser, personnel director Gary Sachs and Coach Vinny Del Negro handled draft day nicely, unloading Mo Williams’ $8.5 million salary, picking up Lamar Odom, and reportedly closing in on a deal with Jamal Crawford.

Of course, with Andy, Vinny and Gary on a roll, it now remains to be seen if Sterling will even bother to select a GM from the list of candidates headed by Kiki Vandeweghe, Tony DiLeo and Jeff Weltman.

Unfortunately—there’s that word again–Vinny’s on an expiring contract, too.

So, the Clips will embark on this all-important season before Paul’s free-agent decision–CP3 having just turned down the extension they just offered him–with a coach on a lame duck contract and, perhaps, no GM!

Twinkle, twinkle, L.A. stars, how we wonder where you are going.

Mark Heisler is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops, LakersNation and the Old Gray Lady. His power rankings appear every Wednesday during the regular season, and his columns and video reports appear regularly here. Follow him on Twitter.

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  1. Andy Center says:

    Mark,
    I just want to pass on that I greatly miss your L.A. Times columns, especially on Sundays. You were my favorite sports writer for many years. While the internet is a daily essential for me, I still prefer my sports in news print form.
    With four kids ranging from ages 11 to 21 I certainly see the issues that newspapers have because I can’t get any of them (save bribery) to read a newspaper. Growing up in the 1960′s my brother and started reading the Herald Examiner sports page daily by age 7 and 8 respectively (we loved Mud and others). Soon after we started getting the LA Times too, and then also the Daily Breeze. Man, we really worked those sports pages on weekends so we always had someting left to read even if it was just the horse racing results.
    I know at age 54 I am now considered ancient by many in the “new media”, nevertheless I still believe that if we eventually lose good traditional newspapers it will be detrimental to our society and even nation. The sports page may not be the largest component of that detrimetal effect but it will be a loss of the most fun part.

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