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Monday, May 19
Phil, Shaq, Kobe could be back on top next season
By Marc Stein
Editor's note: New season, new Stein Line. Now, Marc Stein's NBA report can be found every weekday during the playoffs. A few days have passed since their season expired, which only makes the harsh and hasty finish more final. The Western Conference final is starting Monday night without the Los Angeles Lakers, to remind them again that their Game 6 blowout defeat to San Antonio really did happen. "It's as real as it gets," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said. "I wish it were surreal." The only solace, at this hour, for Fisher and the vanquished champs is that those three titles in a row were real, too. Smug as the Lakers were for much of their championship run, they weren't going to generate a ton of sympathy when the run did end. Winning three consecutive championships is nonetheless real and rare enough that it demands an important semantics clarification before the Spurs, Mavericks, Nets and Pistons rightfully chase the fallen three-peaters all the way off the stage. So ...
You might think that Bryant, so steamed that he's probably getting ready for next season already, is the last of the Lakers' concerns. You'd be wrong. Even though I struggle to envision a legitimate scenario where he actually leaves the Lakers, the fact remains that Bryant will be a free agent in the summer of 2004 unless he signs the contract extension he has resisted for months. From now on, if it hasn't been happening yet, Kobe should be consulted on moves the Lakers make, whether or not they fear that they'd be empowering him too much. O'Neal is 31. Phil Jackson, despite insisting in recent days that he will return next season, doesn't have more than a few seasons left on the bench at 57. Kobe, though, is just 25. He is going to outlast them both and he is the force most likely to keep L.A. in the elite after those two greats are gone. I honestly believe that Kobe relishes the thought of restoring the Lakers to glory more than he's intrigued by the idea of leaving Shaq to go solo in Memphis just because Jerry West is there. Just to make sure, management would be wise to give Kobe maximum input. 2. Get Shaq in shape.
Jackson made it clear Saturday at his last press gathering of the season that he plans to be personally involved in intensifying O'Neal's dedication to conditioning. O'Neal has made it clear in the past that summers are his time and that workouts and surgeries are undertakings for when he's on "company time." The coach, of course, is right on this one. No one questions the gravity of O'Neal's injuries or the physical toll he has taken over a decade in the NBA paint, but O'Neal can't just play his way into shape any more. Not when he's growing older. Not when the Lakers' defense, having slipped considerably, needs sustained activity and energy from its rim-protector. And not in the zone world, where the rules that weren't in place for the Lakers' first two titles demand more mobility for O'Neal, not less. 3. Bust out the checkbook.
This is the most obvious target area but also the most unpredictable. It remains to be seen, firstly, how much more owner Jerry Buss is willing to spend. This season's payroll was already in the $60 million range, which is at least $10 million more than Buss wanted to spend. The Kings and Mavericks, however, have payrolls in the $70 million bracket and are sure to chase all the same players the Lakers want -- a list that includes P.J. Brown, Juwan Howard, Karl Malone, Alonzo Mourning and Scottie Pippen, for starters. The Lakers need a legitimate power forward (a la Brown), an athletic presence to upgrade their perimeter defense (Pippen), an up-tempo point guard to split time with Fisher (as good or better than Speedy Claxton) and a proven long-ball threat (Eric Piatkowski from the cross-town Clippers is the free-agent shooter I like best) to space the floor. If the Lakers have to spend their entire $5 million salary-cap exception on the power forward they want, they're going to have to hope that some good players are willing to come to Hollywood for minimum dollars. The Lakers will try, like all of the other top teams, to get two top free agents to split the $5 million, hoping that the lack of teams with cap space drives prices down. Of course, if every good team has the same plan, it's not going to work out for everyone. What the Lakers get with their $5 million will say much about their '03-04 prospects. Yet, as always, the Lakers like their chances. Jackson's stated desire to return for at least one more year as coach was a good start to the early off-season, and perhaps his influence with the Buss family -- team president Jeanie Buss is his girlfriend, remember -- can convince Papa Buss that spending more than he wants to will keep the profits rolling in at a championship level. To fill out their roster as needed, L.A. would almost certainly need to spend the full $5 million from its exception and an extra $2 million to $4 million on minimum-salaried players. One of those might be Horry, assuming Jackson and general manager Mitch Kupchak can convince Big Shot Rob to take a massive pay cut to come back in a limited role. The X-factor is the Lakers' mystique. The Spurs have eradicated a good chunk of the on-court aura, but the lure of a purple-and-gold paycheck still figures to hold some sway. If it does, you'd be wise -- however unsavory the thought is for the masses who loathe the Lakers -- not to dismiss their dynasty possibilities. "You really want me to answer that question?" said Bryant, asked for his prediction. "You know what I'm thinking."