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Malone's return a must for Lakers

If Karl Malone wants to pursue an NBA title, he will find his way back to the Los Angeles Lakers.

If the Lakers have even the slightest interest in making another championship push next season with the essence of the team that reached the NBA Finals this season, they'll be on the phone to Malone as soon as they can possibly pry themselves out of their latest very important meeting.

As things squat today, I wouldn't give you a buck's bet as to whether either one of those will occur.

But I can tell you this: They most certainly should.

It's anybody's guess right now what Malone is thinking. He's tired. He is obviously mentally drained. He suffered the devastating loss of his mother before Olympic qualifying last summer, and then the ignobility of a recurring knee injury that left him in street clothes while his team got mugged by the Detroit Pistons. He stood on the sideline and watched another team want the NBA title more than his team.

Malone saw his teammates disintegrate into name-calling and backbiting, and now Kobe Bryant is going to be a free agent, and Shaquille O'Neal is rumbling about wanting either a new deal or a trade, and Phil Jackson could be yesterday's news any minute, and you already know the whole ridiculous Gary Payton soap plot. If you had to make a stand right this nanosecond, you would stand on the notion that Malone is neither mentally nor physically right.

But that can change -- and it bloody well ought to. If you went around and polled NBA coaches, they would put Karl Malone -- right now, at age 40 -- near the top of their list of people they don't like to see suiting up for the opponent. If you polled those same coaches, Malone would be virtually at the top of the list of people they'd like to see finally get a championship ring.

"It's because he does it right," one Western Conference coach said recently. "He goes so hard. He makes such a difference. He sacrifices. I watched that series they (the Lakers) had with Minnesota, and Karl was just the glue on that team all the way through. They don't win it without him."

It's still the truth, by the way. The Lakers don't win without Malone. Put him in the Finals against the Pistons at full health and the entire strategies of those games change. Without taking one iota away from Detroit, which played like a championship team from start to finish of the series, it stands true that the Lakers with Malone on the floor present an entirely different look than the soft-in-the-middle corps that got pummeled without him.

As for Malone's current state of mind, give it time. The man needs to kick back and think things over. He needs to rediscover what possessed him to sign with L.A. in the first place. Read almost nothing into Malone's opting out of his contract, which simply gives him negotiating room if and when he decides to sit down with Lakers owner Jerry Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak to discuss one more go round. First, and most importantly, Malone has to figure out whether he can be physically whole. After that, the choice ought to become easy.

Malone's agent, Dwight Manley, made it clear the other day that if Malone were to continue playing in the NBA, it would be with the Lakers. I find it almost impossible to conceive of an iron man like Malone ending his 19-year career on an injury note. Not that it's impossible; injuries have cut down brilliant players both in their primes and near the ends of their athletic runs. But it's sure hard to imagine.

And it is more difficult still to imagine that Kupchak and Buss don't understand what a gem they have in Malone. He came to them willingly at a bargain-basement price of $1.5 million. He got close to both O'Neal and Bryant, in a locker room that sometimes appears designed to force players into siding up with either one superstar or the other.

Malone was unselfish in his game. He gave up scoring opportunities to go for a ring. He played defense, rebounded, ran the floor with players 15 years his younger. He fit into an entirely new system, which Payton was unable to do.

That's a critical consideration, that last one. If Jackson indeed concludes his tenure, and the Lakers hire a new head coach, the one thing they can be sure of is that Karl Malone will figure out how to play for the new guy. Along the way, he might just persuade some of his teammates that they can make the switch, too. There's no arguing the inherent value in that.

This past half week wasn't the time for thoughtful reflection. It was the time for lunatic ranting and worst-case-scenario pondering. And, sure, the whole thing could go up in flames; there's always that possibility. With Jackson meeting Buss in a private session on Friday, the sense of change around the Lakers seems right now to encircle the entire organization.

But sooner or later (and it desperately needs to be sooner), the folks in El Segundo will awaken to discover that they still have O'Neal under contract, still have the best chance of any NBA team at signing Bryant, still have Payton under contract and might -- might -- be headed into next season with Phil Jackson still walking the Lakers' sideline. It is at that point, and not a moment after, that they need to get on the phone to Karl Malone, if only so that they can begin talking about winning again.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.