Future Hall of Famers mull options

Originally Published: June 14, 2004
Associated Press

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Karl Malone and Gary Payton didn't sign on for this -- an injury to one star and frustration for the other.

Far closer to the end of their careers than the beginning, the future Hall of Famers joined the Los Angeles Lakers at discount prices last summer hoping to win championship rings for the first time.

That seems unlikely now, since no team has rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals. That's what the Lakers face entering Game 5 at The Palace.

"It would have been harder if we hadn't gotten here," Payton said Monday. "I still say we haven't played well yet."

Although neither player is able to make their normal contributions, both remain optimistic. Neither would speak of Tuesday night's game as perhaps being their last with the Lakers.

"I don't want to answer if it ends tomorrow -- I don't want to think about that," Malone said.

"I don't think it's going to be my last game with the Lakers," Payton said. "I think we'll come back. I'm going to have to think about [leaving] over the summer."

They can both opt out of their contracts with the Lakers. At age 40, Malone is mulling retirement, too.

It's not a stretch to believe things might be different had Malone not injured his right knee in Game 2. The Lakers have called it a sprained medial collateral ligament; Malone believes it's a tear, like the one he sustained in December.

Malone was limited to 18 minutes in Game 3 and 21 in Game 4 -- both victories for the Pistons.

"It would be a big difference if Karl was 100 percent. We know that," assistant coach Tex Winter said.

"It's hurting us, very much," Payton said. "He's coming in, he's keeping everybody's spirits up. That's the kind of guy he is."

Ever stoic, Malone plays on -- at least until he can't go any longer, which happened midway through the third period in each of the last two games.

"This is not the way you would like the script to go," he said. "I've done everything you can think of. It's just not responding.

"It's not about age. It's about injury."

Payton has played in each of the Lakers' 103 games this season -- 82 in the regular season and 21 in the playoffs. Admittedly, it's been a struggle because of a new system.

"I'm living with it. I can't grip and grind right now," he said. "Don't complain about it, don't cry about it."

Some say the Lakers have been fraught with dissension. Malone and Winter both said such talk is exaggerated.

"We've been through enough that it's brought us together, no matter what anybody says," Malone said. "Except for the injuries, I wouldn't change a thing."

Winter, who at age 82 has seen just about everything in the game of basketball, said team chemistry hasn't been a problem.

"Oh, there's no friction," Winter said. "These guys have been real good. There have been times where basically, they feel Kobe (Bryant) tries to do too much. I think they understand Kobe. They've learned to play around that.

"They all recognize the team is not going to win unless Kobe is playing and playing well. He hasn't played well in this series.

Bryant shot 4-of-13 in Game 3 and 8-of-25 in Game 4 -- both losses.

"If you know me, I'm probably the most optimistic person you've ever met," Bryant said in looking to Game 5.

Winter said Payton did a good job in the last two games even if his lack of scoring didn't reflect that.

"He's facilitated the offense, that's what we're asking him to do," Winter said. "It's tough on Karl and Gary right now. They want championships so badly. That's why they're with the Lakers."

Winter acknowledged the Lakers have had a difficult time running the offense because of injuries during the regular season along with unfamiliarity.

"I knew it would be tough, experience has taught me that it would be tough," Winter said. "We're not as effective running the offense as we've been. That's what you bargain for when you have four All-Stars on your team. There's only one ball."

Lakers coach Phil Jackson said he would speak to Malone on Tuesday concerning his availability for Game 5.

"I liked his effort in the first half," Jackson said. "Second half, he couldn't continue and we'll have to see whether, if he gets warmed up, he can give it to us."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press