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Price of Malone, Payton was right

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Phil Jackson wore a black suit with a black shirt and pulled the look together with a black striped tie. He must have known.

It was a funereal ensemble, and it proved perfect for the occasion.

That's right. The season that will be remembered as Jackson's greatest challenge in coaching has irretrievably perished. There isn't a flight from Colorado or an 0.4 moment or a Zenmeister speech about futures on the line that can save the fractured Los Angeles Lakers now. The relevant stat around here suddenly isn't the one about how a home team has never won the middle three games in the NBA Finals. It's the one that tells us that no team in the Finals has ever recovered from a 3-1 deficit, pretty much confirming that Phil isn't going to get that 10th ring this spring, and increasing the likelihood that Karl Malone never wins one.

Not that it changes anything I've believed since July.

Even if the Lakers get snuffed again Tuesday night -- even if the Pistons score what would seem like a fifth straight victory over the West's supposed best -- you will never convince me that it was a bad idea to add Malone and Gary Payton to Shaq and Kobe's already crowded constellation.

For $6.4 million?

Never.

No matter how much more help they would have needed to hang in there with the Detroit Pistons, and no matter how shamed the Lakers are by the time these Finals are over.

I said so in the summer, and I say so now even as it's all unraveling spectacularly, even as the Lakers are getting what they deserve for failing to establish a lasting sense of community: If you can get Mailman and Glove for a combined $6.4 million, you have to try it.

Doesn't matter that Payton hasn't contributed anything to L.A.'s postseason beyond that "Do you know much houses cost around here?" commercial. Doesn't matter that Malone, at 40, missed half the season with a knee injury after 18 seasons of rarely missing anything. Or that Malone can't function in the Finals, either, so tantalizingly close to his first championship. Or that Payton is the one who had the trouble-causing ego that couldn't handle Jackson's offense and the reduced role, while Malone was doing something unprecedented in recent Lakers history by forging close ties to Shaq and to Kobe.

It doesn't even matter that the Four Cornerstones and the never-ending drama that surrounds how they share that one ball is going to end just like 1969 ended for Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. In second place.

It was a gamble the Lakers had to take, because signing two future Hall of Famers for a combined $6.4 million is still like getting them for free by the standards of today's NBA. And it wasn't all bad, even though no one is betting now that they can summon the fight to revive themselves ... and even though I can hear you saying that Payton should be paying the Lakers based on his postseason play.

They're going to lose to the better team, and they've scarcely resembled a team in this series, but don't forget everything this mishmash of Lakers did achieve. They survived Kobe-related distractions from the first day of camp back in October, then 82 games on a first-of-its-kind roller coaster, to rally from behind and win their division. They overturned a 2-0 deficit to San Antonio in the second round when no one thought the Lakers could, and they still had believers (hello!) until Sunday evening, when Rasheed Wallace exploited Malone's absence to submit a breakout game ... and Chauncey Billups cemented his place in the pantheon of point guards to abuse the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers ... and the best team defense in the NBA made Bryant look ordinary one more time.

"We're just tough to play," Billups said, "when we get 'Sheed going like that."

When the Lakers get this far, against an Eastern Conference resident, they expect the opponents to cave if they push their hardest. When that didn't happen with the Pistons, as far back as Game 1, L.A. didn't know how to react. Its confidence was shaken, and it's a team that isn't deep or healthy enough to counter Detroit's force.

Shaq tried to convince his postgame audience that "the pressure is on them" because the Pistons "have to close us out." Of course, before you dare to believe that the Lakers still have time to come together and end an 0-for-27 run for teams in the Finals trying to come back from 3-1 down, don't ignore what he said at the end of his interview session.

Asked about a lack of touches in the second quarter, after a blazing start, O'Neal took yet another thinly veiled shot at Bryant, saying: "I'm disappointed because you don't write what you see. I'm disappointed in you."

Still ...

Until the Shaq-and-Kobe union is dissolved, the Lakers had no choice but to try what might be the boldest experiment in NBA history. The Big Two take up so much of salary cap by themselves. Throw in a couple of costly mistakes -- such as overpaying Devean George at Jackson's behest, and drafting Kareem Rush instead of another lefty named Tayshaun Prince -- and L.A. doesn't have the financial flexibility to revamp its roster for the future until one of two megastars goes. If Shaq and Kobe stay together, L.A. will always be forced to fill in wherever it can. In those circumstances, when Payton and Malone are willing to sign on for just a shade over the league's average salary, we repeat for the umpteenth time that there isn't a team on the planet that would refuse the signatures.

What the Lakers (and lots of know-it-alls like me) didn't know, until they got this far, is that the Pistons have a better defense than San Antonio's and more offensive options than advertised. Detroit is more equipped than any other team to make Bryant work at both ends because the Lakers have no one else to deal with Billups and Richard Hamilton. Kobe has to guard one of those two, who, incidentally, are too dangerous from the perimeter to simply pack the lane, as the Lakers did to Tony Parker.

Then again, maybe Malone did know. Maybe he did see this coming, either the threat posed by the Pistons or the severity of his knee trouble.

For it was Malone, less than two weeks ago, who kept telling reporters that they were premature asking him how it felt to be so close to finally winning that ring.

"If we ever get to that point, you'll probably see a Karl Malone you've never seen," the Mailman said after Minnesota had been dispatched. "But it's too soon to talk about that."

Instead, we just saw this For The Ages collection pushed to the brink of dissolution.

No one can claim to know for sure what happens next, because each of the Four Cornerstones -- along with the coach -- is apt to go or stay. I'm not complaining, though. Exasperating as it can be for all of us to follow these guys, and even though their come-and-go intensity often made you question whether they respect the game or really care about their jobs or one another, it has been a ride you absolutely had to take with them.

As ABC's Doc Rivers says: "This may not be the best Laker team of all time, but it's the most interesting."

They sure entertained us, too, so I'm going to try to accept them the way they are.

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.