Expert view: Who holds the key?

Which of the Fab Four is the most important in making L.A. successful? We consulted the experts.

Updated: November 7, 2003, 5:13 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

The Lakers have been yearning for weeks to answer basketball questions and now is their chance. The focus, finally, is on the floor.

Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal
On this night, Kobe and Shaq celebrated.

For two reasons.

Reason No. 1: They've at least temporarily redirected the glare away from Kobe Bryant's legal entanglements, and Shaquille O'Neal's subsequent clash with Kobe, by starting 5-0, better than anyone else in the league.

Reason No. 2: The Lakers just got dragged to double-overtime by a Spurs team that didn't have Tim Duncan or Tony Parker.

L.A.'s unexpectedly narrow 120-117 victory early Friday morning served as a handy reminder that we're all just getting started. As good as the Lakers have looked since emerging from their roller-coaster offseason, and an equally eventful October, the outcome suggests that at least one team out there is not prepared to hand them a thing.

So let's indulge the Lakers. Let's play along and assume L.A. can weather all the distractions, as it keeps insisting, and ask aloud: Who, among L.A.'s four future Hall of Famers, has to make the biggest on-court adjustment to make the ambitious concept work?

Even Tex Winter, the Lakers' 81-year-old triangle guru, admits the curiosity brought him back for one more season as Phil Jackson's chief offensive consultant.

"It's interesting for me," Winter said. "It's one reason why I'm staying on longer than I thought I would. I'm kind of anxious to see how these two great players could fit in."

Winter was referring to newcomers Gary Payton and Karl Malone, whose arrival -- at the combined basement price of $6.4 million -- prompted Jackson to suggest that the Lakers' overload on stars could either result in 65-70 wins ... or, given L.A.'s penchant for discord, a season "that could implode in some ways."

Which will it be? We surveyed a handful of experts to see whom they would nominate as the player most likely to be the Lakers' make-or-break source of implosion prevention.

Gary Payton
Payton
Gary Payton
Pete Newell: "I don't think you can divide up the ball between four guys and keep everyone happy. You can do it with three scorers. You can't do it with four. Payton really needs to recognize this and make sure that the other three are getting the ball. Philadelphia, a number of years ago, had Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Moses Malone and Mo Cheeks. Marc Iavaroni was the fifth starter and didn't need the ball. Later they got (Charles) Barkley in Iavaroni's place, and it didn't work as well. But Mo was very content to keep the other three happy. I'd like to see if Payton can be a point guard just like Cheeks was, because Mo could also score if they needed him to score."

Magic Johnson: "Don't worry about all this 'there's only one ball' stuff. Gary is a point guard. He does what point guards do -- that's get everybody involved in the game. Gary brings an element we didn't have before. That's a guard that can push it, then break the defense down and make the pass. Kobe will get more dunks than ever. You're going to see a lot of highlight material this year because Gary can get in the open court.

"Gary will make Kobe's life so much better, because he'll look at the other team and say: 'Who's the best guard? I got him.' You know how great that is? Kobe doesn't have to feel that he has to win every game. You'll see a fresher Kobe. ... The key that I try to tell everybody is this -- we're going to score easier baskets. San Antonio proved one point to us (last spring). They got more fast-break points and more easy baskets than we did in that series, and that's why they won. We didn't run."

Derek Harper: "Gary can create a lot outside the triangle. He still has the ability to push the basketball and give the Lakers some transition baskets. The other thing he can do that they haven't had in the past is give them somebody that can really pressure the ball and change the game defensively as well. I don't think they're going to be in that triangle as much as they've been in the past because of Gary, just the way he plays. You look at him as an older guard in the league, but these first couple nights, he's pushed the ball like I've never seen him push it before."

Kobe Bryant
Bryant
Kobe Bryant
Dominique Wilkins: "Who has the hardest job? The youngest out of the group is Kobe, so probably he does. As a younger guy, quite naturally, it's harder to adjust. I've talked to Gary, and he wants to win a championship. Gary is willing to do whatever it takes, and I'm sure Karl feels the same, or else he would have never signed there. ... Without a doubt I can identify with them. I might have come out of retirement (for the same chance to win a ring with O'Neal and Bryant). All I'd have to do is stand out on the wing. But it's not like these guys are going to be sitting on a bench waving a towel. You have two major players, and Karl and Gary are guys who can still get it done."

Shaquille O'Neal
O'Neal
Shaquille O'Neal
Dr. Jack Ramsay: "I would be torn between Shaq and Kobe. The thing that impressed me very much (on Opening Night) was the way that Shaq allowed Malone to come to the post position. I thought maybe he would let it go if Malone beat him down the floor, but he seems to almost defer and give (Malone) ample opportunities inside. And the result is they really have great passing from inside now. I was very impressed with their win over Dallas, and I thought at that time, 'Will Kobe play with these guys or is he still going to want to take the ball by himself and dominate?' From what I've seen, he's willing to play his role, too. If they both continue to do that, I don't see how they can they miss."

None of the above
Bill Walton: "The Lakers' problems are much more likely to be off-court problems than on-court problems. They will have no on-court problems, other than it will be too easy for them. I've never known Karl Malone to be anything other than all about the team, and with Gary Payton, he is finally in a position where he's not the best player on a team. The worst thing that can happen to guys is to be the best player on a bad team, and Gary has certainly been on some bad teams. This is a truly special team. I see these guys as being all about winning the championship, and I'm already on record as saying it's going to be an undefeated season."

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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