Phil rallies Lakers for one last run

Updated: May 14, 2004, 1:57 PM ET
By Peter May | Special to ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- If there's a déjà vu aspect to this Los Angeles Lakers' season for Phil Jackson, it's understandable. He has been here before. Not too long ago, in fact.

Six years ago, Jackson was guiding Michael Jordan and the Bulls to what would be their sixth title in eight seasons. But as the team went through the playoffs -- stretched to the max by the Pacers in the conference finals and threatened by the Jazz in the NBA Finals -- it was apparent to one and all that the Bulls' team would not be the same after the last horn sounded.

And it wasn't. Jackson took a year off. Jordan retired, or so we thought. Scottie Pippen went to Houston. Dennis Rodman went somewhere. Jackson called that season "The Last Dance" and, when the lights were turned off, the Bulls of the next season had few identifiable players and even fewer wins. The franchise is now in its third or fourth -- or is it fifth? -- rebuilding phase.

Such a diaspora is unlikely for the Lakers. Shaquille O'Neal is, after all, under contract for next year, although he would like another extension. But this particular Lakers' team -- constructed for a one-season, all-out assault on the title -- will, in all likelihood, be rent asunder at the end of the season. The Lakers' team you see next season may not look a lot like the one that is trying to dethrone the Spurs and reclaim what they feel is rightfully theirs.

"This year is an experiment," Jackson said. "This is something we're trying to do and that's to bring a championship opportunity to players who have been in this game for a long time, been there before like Karl (Malone) and Gary (Payton), and to bring an opportunity for us in L.A. to win another championship for the guys who've been here for the first three."

Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson wants the Lakers to focus on the present, not their uncertain futures.
The Chicago team was "a different group of players," Jackson said. "We had maybe 10 players who had won three titles. This group was (put together for) this year."

At the top of the uncertain list among the players is Kobe Bryant. Who knows what he's going to do -- or where he's going to do it? He's had a contract extension on his desk at home for more than a year now and basically uses it as a coaster. He wants to explore free agency, he doesn't particularly like playing with Shaq or for Phil, and there are certain to be a number of teams who might tempt him.

But then there's this messy matter in Colorado overshadowing everything. How could any team commit to Bryant until a verdict is delivered? And we don't have a trial date yet. But if you're Jerry Buss, who is said to adore Bryant, what are you thinking when you see Bryant want to check other opportunities?

The two imported icons for this season, Malone and Payton, also could be elsewhere next season. Both have player option clauses in their contracts and it would surprise no one if both exercised them.

Malone already has made noises about retiring, although he insisted this week that the issue is not settled. One would think that if the Lakers did get past the Spurs and won a title, then Malone would feel that his mission was completed. He won't get the all-time scoring title. But a championship ring might be all he needs to drive into the sunset in an 18-wheeler.

Payton's situation is a little less clear. His option for next season is for more than $5 million, five times that of Malone's. He has made noises about taking less money to play elsewhere next season because he isn't happy in Jackson's share-the-ball, share-the-wealth system. (Although, as we're seeing, the triangle has gone the way of the two-handed set shot.)

Payton will be 36 in July. Is there any team out there that would offer a lot of money to a 36-year-old point guard with declining skills and an attitude? Maybe. But it may never come to that because Payton might just stay where he is, play another season with Shaq and hope that Jackson goes elsewhere and the new coach emphasizes Payton more in the offense.

Jackson's impending free agency is another dicey issue. The team announced during the season that it had broken off contract extension talks with the surefire Hall of Fame head coach. Lakerologists interpreted that as a sign from Buss to Kobe that he, Bryant, was at the top of the team's offseason wish list.

Win or lose, I think it's going to be the end of this group as we know it.
Rick Fox
Jackson brought the Lakers together after the team dropped the first two games of the Spurs' series and told them that this was it -- that a lot of the faces, including his, might not be around next season. He was basically stating the facts. It was time to put everything else aside and go for the ring.

Outwardly, Jackson does not appear to be unfazed by the situation, but there are those who think he really wants to coach the Lakers next season (and beyond) and that, eventually, it will get done. O'Neal has said that he won't play for any other coach -- gee, where have we heard that before? -- but Shaq isn't going to leave $20-something million on the table if Jackson hops on his Harley and heads to Montana.

There also are others who could potentially be elsewhere, from Derek Fisher (a player option) to Horace Grant (free agent) to some of the kids to even Rick Fox, who, like everyone else, is wondering what will happen.

A lot of these players have been teammates for a long time. Fisher, Kobe and Shaq all joined the Lakers in 1996. Fox joined them the next season. Devean George has been with the team for five seasons, Slava Medvedenko for four seasons. But the breakup may actually have started last summer, when Robert Horry, a Laker playoff regular for seven years, was allowed to leave.

"When they let Rob go, that told you something," Fox said. "He was as much a part of what went on here as anyone."

Obviously, what happens in the next few days -- or weeks, if the Lakers beat the Spurs -- could have a big impact in who does what. Maybe Kobe will decide that the grass isn't necessarily greener elsewhere and decide to stick around. Maybe Jackson will get what he wants. That's a lot of maybes for a team already distracted and disjointed at times.

A last dance? Or a last car crash?

"Win or lose," Fox said, "I think it's going to be the end of this group as we know it."

Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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