By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - After enduring a roller-coaster season described by Hall of Famer Earvin 'Magic' Johnson as "one of the worst" in franchise history, Los Angeles Lakers fans are scratching their heads over what may happen next.
Widely tipped as National Basketball Association (NBA) championship contenders after assembling a star-studded lineup for their 2012-13 campaign, the injury-hit Lakers were swept out of the playoffs in the opening round by the San Antonio Spurs.
It was the first time in 46 years they had been knocked out of the post-season in four games, a humiliating exit for a team many had predicted would challenge the record 72 games won by the Chicago Bulls during their landmark 1995-96 regular season.
Despite boasting a potent starting five including All-Stars Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, Los Angeles limped to an underwhelming 45-37 record as their ageing lineup succumbed to a spate of injuries.
Though they ended the regular season on a 28-12 run to book their place in the playoffs as the seventh-seeded team, that achievement came at a price with the inspirational Bryant ruled out of the post-season due to an Achilles tendon injury.
The Lakers were totally outplayed by the second-seeded Spurs in their first-round series, routed 103-82 in Game Four after center Howard was ejected following a second technical foul early in the third quarter.
"Dwight Howard that was a big No, No. Your teammates and the fans were counting on you," Johnson tweeted, before adding: "Dwight, I've been swept before but I never let my team down by getting kicked out of the game."
Johnson, who with fellow Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spearheaded the Lakers in the fabled "Showtime" era from 1979-1989, was not finished.
"I'm sooooooooooo happy the season is over. With the talent on this team this could go down as one of the worst seasons in Lakers' history!"
Johnson, along with many others, had expected much of the men in purple-and-gold after the off-season acquisitions of Howard and Nash beefed up a roster already bristling with quality and experience in Bryant and Gasol.
However Nash ended up missing 24 games because of a fracture in his left leg while Howard never appeared to recover fully from back surgery in mid 2012 while battling a shoulder injury and perceived tension between himself and team leader Bryant.
Forwards Gasol and Metta World Peace, along with backup guards Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks, were sidelined because of assorted ailments during a tumultuous season as the team failed to gel until the pressure was on to make the playoffs.
Head coach Mike D'Antoni was widely criticized for an apparent inability to adjust his offense-minded style to fit a mainly old and slow roster, gifted Spaniard Gasol suffering the most as he was repeatedly shifted between multiple roles.
"It was a bit of a roller-coaster, obviously," D'Antoni said of his first season in charge of the Lakers.
"A lot of disappointment at the end. Due to a lot of circumstances, we started off slow and got us in a hole.
"The last 40 games, we played well. Disappointed we couldn't do anything in the playoffs - a lot of it due to injuries. We had ourselves set up to make a run, but we didn't do it."
The biggest question mark facing the Lakers ahead of next season is whether they can retain both big men, Howard and Gasol, as the team's luxury taxes will soar from $30 million to $85 million if they again have a $100-million payroll.
Howard, 27, will test free agency and is noncommittal about his plans. He can either re-sign with Los Angeles for five years and $118 million or opt for a four-year, $88-million deal with another team.
Gasol, 32, has been a frequent subject of trade rumors and, with a guarantee on his contract of $19.3 million for next season, said earlier this week that he understood the "business side" of the Lakers.
"There's a possibility I could be gone," he told reporters. There's a possibility I could stay. I'm prepared either way.
"I understand the challenges the franchise is facing and the decision they have to make in order to keep the team in the direction they want looking at the present and the future."
Bryant, a five-time NBA champion, fervently hopes the Lakers can go into next season with both Howard and Gasol.
"I want him here," Bryant said of Gasol. "He gives us the best chance to win titles. You bring Dwight back, then we're off and running. You saw how well they played together (at the end of the season). That puzzle finally got solved."
Bryant, who averaged 27.3 points and 6.0 assists during the regular season before he tore his Achilles tendon on April 12, felt the Lakers never had the chance to gel because of their alarming injury rate.
"It was crazy," he said.
"It was a constant process for us, but we finally figured it out. It will be great to bring the group back because we know what to do, and we know how lethal we can be."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)