Things won't get easier for Lakers

Updated: February 17, 2004, 10:44 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- There was a Magic Johnson statue unveiling, along with a tribute soiree for the Magic Mountain.

There was a halfcourt shot from Derek Fisher on Saturday night that had Magic, Fish and Lisa Leslie dancing together on the Staples Center floor as if they had just won a championship.

There could be even more L.A.-centric hoopla Sunday when Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant stage the latest installment of their interminable head-butting in the quest to win the All-Star Game's MVP trophy at home.

Of course, there is also the distinct possibility that this weekend will represent the 2003-04 peak for anyone associated with the Lakers. That this is as good as L.A. can expect for the rest of the season.

That's because, when it's all over Sunday evening, the Lakers return to a mess. They're 13-16 since an 18-3 start, and they have problems to fix that extend far beyond the trainer's room. Bryant, when he's not thinking about his court case in Colorado, is trying to convince a skeptical public that he's not preparing to bolt the Lakers in free agency. Phil Jackson and O'Neal, both seeking contract extensions they're not close to getting, face futures that are unsettled, as well.

Add it all up, and it sounds like a bit of a buzz kill. Especially in a West with more competition within the conference than the Lakers ever saw during their run of three consecutive championships.

"It's been a tough season because ... how we pictured it has not happened," Magic concedes.

Chances are it will only get tougher because getting healthy is merely one significant obstacle. The Lakers have to re-establish cohesion and rhythm. They need to find those elusive properties with each of their three centerpiece personalities not quite sure how much longer they'll be a trio. That's not an insurmountable obstacle for a team more accustomed to dealing with distractions than any other in American professional team sports, but the uncertainty of it all does complicate things.

Magic addressed all that after teaming with Fisher and Leslie to win something called the Radio Shack Shooting Stars in the first event of All-Star Saturday.

"I've seen it come together in shorter time," Magic insists. "When Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) retired, we struggled the whole year until the last two weeks of the season. ... And then we made a fantastic run in the playoffs and went all the way to the Finals and the Bulls beat us. Remember, Portland had the best record that year, and they were supposed to win it all.

"So I'm telling you now, it can happen. I'm not counting the Lakers out. I'm just saying that we have to get everybody back and also everybody on the same page."

I have to admit that, from here, heaving one in from halfcourt looks a tad easier.

Perhaps a bit more on Kobe and the Lakers
Kobe Bryant is not leaving Los Angeles. He is staying with the Lakers or signing with the Clippers. My belief continues to be that those are the only options he will seriously consider this summer.

He is opting out of his contract for the same reason Shaq, in the first year of a contract extension, is angling for another extension. The simple reasoning: Bryant is eligible to opt out and opting out can lead to a new seven-year deal that would pay him well over $100 million if he re-signs with the Lakers.

Rival suitors can only offer six years, but -- as we've been saying for weeks -- the Clippers are the only the team that will tempt Bryant. He has a comfort level with the coach (Mike Dunleavy) and a friendship with one of the team's stars (Corey Maggette, with whom Bryant shares an agent) and wouldn't have to uproot his family if he switched locker rooms at Staples. Offers also will come from Atlanta and Phoenix and maybe even Utah, but Kobe isn't going to want to change too much in his private life if he is acquitted of rape charges.

The argument against defecting to the Clippers is obvious: It's the Clippers. Bryant would be putting his faith in Clips owner Donald Sterling that Sterling will continue to add to what would be a pretty promising core: Kobe, Elton Brand and Maggette.

Faith, in this case, is undoubtedly synonymous with foolishness, but there's a counter to the obvious argument. Bryant's long-term prospects alongside Brand and Maggette would arguably be better than the extended outlook for a franchise relying on the unpredictability of Shaq's body cooperating and the health and happiness of two aging veterans (Karl Malone and Gary Payton) who took major pay cuts to come to Hollywood. Even a good, optimistic soldier like Fisher admits that these Lakers were only "built for this year." The Clips, by contrast, could flourish with role players to fill out the roster if Bryant, Brand and Maggette clicked.

"If (Bryant) wants to leave, I can't do anything about that," Magic said. "But he should make a call to Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson and even Kevin Garnett ... and ask them, 'What is it like to really have your own team?' Is it all what it's made out to be?'"

No surprise NBA's dunk funk continues
Kobe. Vince Carter. Tracy McGrady. Steve Francis. Manu Ginobili. And, of course, LeBron James.

Just thought I'd put together a list of qualified participants who were in Los Angeles this weekend but not in Saturday night's dunk contest, which might have been the worst dunk contest ever, incidentally.

Indiana's Fred Jones, who did show some impressive stuff before the sorry finish, won by default when he and Golden State's Jason Richardson both failed to convert their final slams. Meaning that the contest indeed ended on a flurry of misses.

Mind you, we can only whine about the decline of the dunk contest so many times. It has been suggested by several ESPN analysts, starting with our man David Aldridge, that the league's corporate sponsors need to put a big-money purse together to get the big names back. That's a good, obvious solution ... so let's please see it happen someday soon instead of being forced to throw it out there every February.

Because you can't tell me, if all of those aforementioned jammers were in the same field with Desmond Mason and some of the good dunkers who did participate Saturday, that the anticipation wouldn't be just as intense as it was in the 1980s. You know it would. You know a group like that could come up with several dunks we've never seen before.

Briefly ...
Trade talk at All-Star Weekend has been relatively tame so far, which probably isn't surprising given how many big names (Stephon Marbury, Rasheed Wallace, Jalen Rose, Ricky Davis, Bonzi Wells) have already been traded since the season started. New York's ongoing interest in Atlanta's Nazr Mohammed and Philadelphia's discussions with Chicago about a Aaron McKie-for-Jerome Williams swap (as reported here Wednesday) are the main talking points at present. But there's still time for another substantial deal or two, with the trading deadline not until 3 p.m. ET on Thursday. ... Toronto's Vince Carter, we can assure you, will not be giving his starting spot away to anyone Sunday. ... Of course, it's tough to feel great about any predictions after watching everyone's lock -- Sacramento's Peja Stojakovic -- get cold late and lose the Three-Point Shootout to Denver's Voshon Lenard. Never thought that was possible. ... There will inevitably be parallels drawn between Indiana's Jones, the new dunk champ, and a former Pacer who was an '80s fixture in the dunk contest in spite of his limited playing time. The problem with the comparison: Even though Terence Stansbury never won the contest, he had to go against the event's grand masters in his day: Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins. Jones only had to beat out three other guys -- Richardson, Davis and Chris Andersen -- in a four-man event that doesn't even belong in the same sentence with contests past. ... One of the best quotes of the weekend comes from Philadelphia's Iverson, who earnestly announced in reference to the infamous press-conference video that gets shown over and over and over: "You guys are killing me with that. I like practice!" ... Shaq, with a closing thought on the Lakers: "I've been here for eight years. I knew it wasn't going to be easy, but I like it. I wouldn't want to play for a bland team or a bland organization. Whether it's positive marketing or negative marketing, everybody's talking about us."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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