- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Dwight Manley, the agent for Karl Malone, told ESPN.com Tuesday that he expects Malone to make a decision on his free-agent future Wednesday or Thursday, after hearing that Gary Payton plans to join the Los Angeles Lakers.
"Karl is at his ranch in Arkansas right now, and it'll probably be a day or two before he decides," Manley said. "As far as the Lakers (adding Payton), it really clarifies the Lakers for Karl. It definitely makes it very attractive."
Malone has shown strong interest in the Lakers from the start of the free agent negotiations on July 1, to a degree that the Hall of Fame-bound power forward is apparently willing to join the dethroned champions for a mere $1.5 million -- a cut of almost $18 million from his 2002-03 salary.
The $1.5 million figure is the most L.A. can offer Malone next season after committing its $4.9 million mid-level exception to Payton. Malone would likely be able to get more money if he signed with San Antonio, Sacramento or Dallas, and league sources caution that a move to the Lakers is not yet a done deal, with the Jazz exploring sign-and-trade possibilities (with the Kings) and the Lakers' three West rivals hesitant to let Malone join L.A.'s new star trio unopposed.
Manley, though, emphasized that Malone's decision is "really not about the money at this point."
"Karl is going to go somewhere he is made to feel wanted," Manley said.
At the aforementioned bargain price, the Lakers would practically be panting at the prospect of signing Malone to fill their longstanding void at power forward. Especially after Payton sent word through agent Aaron Goodwin on Tuesday that he plans to sign with L.A. on July 16, the first day NBA teams can sign players this offseason.
To add both of those heavyweights, for a combined $6.4 million next season, is a dream scenario for Lakers coach Phil Jackson, even though there will inevitably be concerns about fitting four Hall of Famer personalities into the same locker room. Given the history of struggle between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, tossing in the headstrong tag team of Payton and Malone guarantees that Jackson will have plenty of egos to massage.
It's a gamble, though, the capped-out Lakers would happily take, after a tumultuous season that ended with O'Neal and Bryant lacking the help to avoid a second-round playoff loss to San Antonio that halted L.A.'s run of three successive championships.
Manley stopped short of saying Malone has ruled out a return to the Utah Jazz, the only team Malone has played for in his 18-season career. Manley did, however, say that Malone is intent on "going where he can win a championship," which can only enhance the Lakers' chances.
It's believed that Malone, who turns 40 on July 24, will not consider re-signing with the Jazz for less than the $8 million earned by John Stockton in his final season. Should Malone sign elsewhere, and with Stockton having retired after the season, Utah would have nearly $20 million in salary-cap space to undertake a dramatic restructuring of its roster.