After a game the Laker locker room empties in a hurry. "That's because losing creates a kind of psychological deadness," Worthy says. "Nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to even think about it. That's why everyone wants to leave so fast."
There is the sense that even as Worthy tries to impart his knowledge to his young teammates, he is looking around and wondering, What am I doing here? "You can see it in his eyes sometimes," says Christie. "We don't have the same intensity in our practices that he's used to, for instance. He gives us all the help he can, but you can tell that, deep down, this is hurting him."
Finishing his career with a losing team isn't what Worthy had in mind, but he has little choice. A contract worth more then $12 million over its remaining two years means the Lakers couldn't trade Worthy even if they wanted to. The only other option is retirement, and although he says he hasn't made any decision yet, he occasionally refers to Los Angeles's need for a leader to emerge from among its young players, "because they know I'm almost gone."
But with the Lakers 20th in the league in rebounding, it doesn't take a great basketball mind to figure out their greatest need. "We need a big bruiser up front who will say 'Not tonight' to guys who bring it in the lane," says Christie. "Somebody who thinks every rebound belongs to him." West puts it another way: "We have to have a guy we can depend on for 20 points and 10 rebounds, night in and night out." Forwards Danny Manning of the Los Angeles Clippers and Horace Grant of the Chicago Bulls, both of whom can become unrestricted free agents after this season, fit that description to varying degrees, and Laker management would love to see either of them in purple and gold next season. West will clearly have room to maneuver under the salary cap thanks to the slot made available by Green's departure, and he might have even more, depending on what happens with veterans like Worthy and Edwards.
And then, of course, there is the draft lottery. As much as the Lakers hate to admit it, that's where they are almost certainly headed, and in the long run it's probably the best place for them. "If we make the right decisions this summer, we could get this thing turned around in a hurry," says West. Christie tells friends, "If we're not in the Western Conference finals three years from now, I'll be shocked."
West might have an even faster timetable in mind. Being among the dregs of the league hurts too much, and the Lakers don't want to build up a tolerance for the pain.