The Golden State Warriors were just over two minutes away from advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the second straight season, yet no matter how promising the young core is that they have assembled, the future of the team is anything but certain.
When the Warriors let their lead over the Los Angeles Clippers in an emotional Game 7 slip away, the ground only got shakier under coach Mark Jackson's feet. And he's not alone.
Almost every playoff team that lost in the first round this year faces major questions about its roster or coaching changes this summer, proving that being a part of one of the most exciting and competitive postseason rounds in recent memory is providing little solace to those that are going home early.
The Raptors' best player, point guard Kyle Lowry, becomes a free agent. Dirk Nowitzki and Vince Carter will be free agents in Dallas. Zach Randolph can opt out of his deal with the Memphis Grizzlies and the Chicago Bulls will have to wait to see how Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah return from knee surgeries.
"I love Coach more than anybody, and I think for him to be in a situation where his job is under scrutiny and under question is totally unfair," Warriors guard Steph Curry said of Jackson, who jettisoned two of his assistants in a tumultuous 51-win season. "And it would definitely be a shock to me if anything like (replacing him) were to happen."
Life is rarely fair in the NBA, where George Karl was fired in Denver last season after being named coach of the year and Lionel Hollins was shown the door in Memphis after leading the Grizzlies to the Western Conference finals.
Should the Warriors job open, several high-profile suitors likely would line up to take over a talent-laden roster that, when Andrew Bogut is healthy, can play the kind of hard-nosed defense it takes to go deep into the playoffs. The New York Knicks have had discussions with TNT analyst Steve Kerr, but would a chance to take over a team primed to win right away convince him to look elsewhere?
In Toronto, coach Dwane Casey received a new three-year extension on Monday, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, but they still have to deal with Lowry's pending free agency.
The 28-year-old Lowry, who long has been a talented but stubborn player, averaged 21.1 points and shot 39.5 percent from 3-point range in a seven-game loss to Brooklyn in the opening round. The Raptors' rise was largely attributed to Lowry's emergence as a dependable force, and now he will have a big decision to make.
"I love this place, it's as simple as that," Lowry told reporters in Toronto, though he would not commit to staying.
In Dallas, Nowitzki is widely expected to return to the only team he has ever played for, the one that took the top-seeded Spurs the distance in the first round before getting blown out. But he will be 36 in June and the Mavericks will have to retool around him and Monta Ellis to take another step.
The Bulls are also expected to make changes to the roster that once again overachieved. Carlos Boozer is a candidate to be amnestied and the offensively-challenged Bulls could try to lure Carmelo Anthony in free agency with the subsequent cap room.
And in Memphis, Randolph has a $16.5 million player option that he could forgo to try to get one more long-term deal.
"This is where I want to be at," Randolph said. "This is home for me."
AP Sports Writers Antonio Gonzalez in Oakland, California; and Teresa M. Walker in Memphis contributed to this report.
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