- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Yet you needn't expect to see The Mailman in a Pacers uniform as a fill-in for the suspended Jermaine O'Neal.
The Pacers, for starters, haven't called Malone to gauge his interest, even though they have more than half of their $5 million salary-cap exception -- more than most teams -- to offer the 41-year-old.
Malone, furthermore, is not expected to consider a return to the NBA until the new year after undergoing knee surgery in June, according to agent Dwight Manley.
"He's physically there, or almost there," Manley told ESPN.com. "He's doing really well. It's just a question of when he wants to make a decision. He has some family plans through the holidays."
ESPN.com reported in August that Malone had informed new Lakers coach Rudy Tomjanovich that, if he plays a 20th season, he would only sign with the Lakers. Malone and Manley later had lunch with Lakers owner Jerry Buss on the eve of training camp to let Buss know that Malone wouldn't sign with another team.
But San Antonio and Minnesota continue to check in regularly with Malone, according to league sources, promising to save a roster spot for him.
Manley said the Lakers remain a virtual certainty to sign Malone, if he does play, with Malone reluctant to move his family out of the neighborhood he shares with Kobe Bryant. Manley said Malone's wish to stay in the Western Conference rules out the Miami Heat as well as the Pacers.
"In all my conversations with Karl," Manley said, "he just didn't have a desire to play in the East."
League rules enable the Pacers to move Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and O'Neal to the suspended list, because they have been assessed long-term suspensions, and create three roster openings. Indiana can then use its remaining salary-cap exceptions ($2.7 million and $1.6 million) to sign replacements or add minimum-salaried players.
It was not immediately known whether the Pacers have interest in Malone, a former Olympic teammate of Reggie Miller. More likely free-agent candidates include Gary Trent -- possibly the most seasoned NBA power forward available in free agency -- and veteran small forward Michael Curry, who played for Rick Carlisle in Detroit. Courtney Alexander, a former lottery pick in the 2000 draft, is another possibility at a swing spot.
16hMatt Walks, ESPN.com