- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Don't even ask.
Don't try to repackage the question that has been repeated all week. The question we're going to hear all season, in various forms.
Can this really work?
Isn't this two superstars too many?
How are four future Hall of Famers going to share one ball?
In response, I've got a question and an answer for everyone.
My question: Why bother asking?
My answer to the first three questions: It doesn't matter if it works or not.
It doesn't matter if the Four Cornerstones they've just lined up to play together in Los Angeles fall short of a championship, just as the Wilt Chamberlain-Jerry West-Elgin Baylor triumvirate fell short in 1969. Doesn't even matter if a spectacular power struggle overpowers all the star power.
"There is no team in the league that wouldn't take those two guys at that price," said one Western Conference executive. "No team."
That's right. Getting Payton and Malone, for a combined $6.4 million next season, is like getting Payton and Malone for free. At that price, you don't even hesitate. The Lakers naturally will have to pay luxury tax on both of the new contracts, which puts the actual cost of Glove and Mailman closer to $13 million next season, but that's still a steal.
Don't confuse the Lakers' free-agent home run with what the Yankees do every year. This isn't the NBA's version of Boss Steinbrenner buying his way to supremacy. This is Mitch Kupchak -- the same Mitch Kupchak who has been unfairly pilloried by fans who think he actually had the freedom to spend lavishly the past two offseasons -- getting two still-productive and well-conditioned veterans on the same shoestring budget owner Jerry Buss outlines every offseason. With some very persuasive recruiting help from Shaq (Payton) and Magic Johnson (Malone), Kupchak has just had a summer that would easily crack Jerry West's top three. Maybe even the top two, coming in just behind that glorious summer of 1996, when The Logo somehow snared Bryant in the draft and then signed O'Neal a few weeks later.
Getting Payton, nearly 35, and Malone, almost 40, can't compare to the haul of '96 ... until you remember how much it's costing. Then it's not long before you're putting the haul of '03 in the same conversation.
Of course, there will inevitably be some issues. Bryant, after dealing with his legal issues first, will undoubtedly bristle at the unspoken implication that he needed this much help to restore the Lakers to glory. Of equal concern is how Malone, on a pay cut of nearly $18 million, accepts his new designation of Role Player. An outspoken and demanding teammate for nearly two decades in Utah, Malone is going to be asked to rebound and defend and do more grunt work than he ever has. Without making cracks about Shaq's weight.
That said, what team doesn't have issues? What team wouldn't want to add Payton and Malone, for a fourth of Shaq's salary next season, and figure it all out later? Right. We already answered that one.
Then there are the other answers, which suggest that these guys will mix well, making the whole concept even more of a no-brainer. Answers like:
Yes, one ball is enough. Great players generally love to play together, and even though that theory is bound to be tested over 82 games -- compared with an All-Star Weekend or a month with the Dream Team -- these four are all superior passers. They'll enjoy zipping the ball around the horn as much as neutrals will enjoy watching them. As one rival Western Conference coach told me: "Triangle, schmeye-angle. It doesn't matter what the system is. They'll just play."
Yes, Phil Jackson can handle four legends. Even four headstrong legends. Or at least he'll be a lot more comfortable coaching this first-of-its-kind foursome than he is breaking young guys in. It might be the biggest challenge of his coaching career, even bigger than hauling last season's Lakers from an 11-19 start to title contention, but it's a challenge that figures to invigorate Jackson. It should make him even more eager to extend his comeback from heart surgery.
Yes, Malone can play in the triangle. He's a dangerous high-post player, still moves as well as any power forward (in spite of his age) and will benefit from one rarely discussed aspect of the Lakers' offense. For all you hear about the triangle, be advised that the Lakers went away from the triangle more than ever last season, running plenty of pick-and-rolls and assorted other conventional NBA sets when they needed instant offense from Bryant. Trust us: You'll see Bryant and Malone running screen-rolls at the free-throw line here and there.
Yes, Malone will be able to handle what a reduced role offensively does to his march against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time scoring record. Malone will get plenty of regular-season opportunities to keep scoring because O'Neal undoubtedly will miss a handful of games, given his conditioning/toe troubles and oft-recited complaints about the season being too long. The Lakers' newfound depth will enable O'Neal to get the regular-season rest he craves, without short-circuiting the offense, and L.A. also figures to run more, with fast-breakers like GP and Mail signing on. Want more? Malone actually only needs to average roughly 12 points a game, over two full seasons, to pass Abdul-Jabbar. He should be able to do that as a Laker, and be advised that Jazz owner Larry Miller isn't ruling out a return to Utah for Malone at the end of his career -- whenever he decides to stop -- so he can finish as a Jazzman. The record will be Mail's eventually, it's just a matter of when.
The rest of the West wouldn't be scurrying so feverishly right now if the Lakers didn't look more dangerous to the competition than they will to each other. Implosion is always an option with stubborn personalities, but the belief here is that health will be a much bigger concern for the Fantastic Four than big egos. The newcomers are at greater risk for injury because of their ages, and both of the holdover All-Stars have been dealing with physical ailments for months.
Questioning the wisdom of signing Gary Payton and Karl Malone for half what Kobe alone makes? Don't bother. The hand in question holds four aces and a one-sided argument.
4dEthan Sherwood Strauss
4dMatt Walks, ESPN.com