Wednesday , Jun , 16 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

The Lakers have an interesting offseason ahead of them

By Warren Blatt, Sports Network NBA Editor

(Sports Network) – There will be a lot of questions surrounding the Los
Angeles Lakers that will be answered in the upcoming weeks.

The Lakers were soundly defeated by the Detroit Pistons in five games in the
NBA Finals. LA was heavily favored, but the Lakers looked like the team that
was overmatched. If it wasn’t for Kobe Bryant’s heroics in Game 2 than the
series would have ended in four games.

The 25-year-old Bryant, who still has to deal with his legal problems in
Colorado, has the right to opt out of his contract with the Lakers. Will the
All-Star guard test the free agent market?

“Yes,” Bryant said when he was asked if he planned to opt out after the Lakers
fell to the Pistons in Game 5.

Bryant, who led the Lakers in scoring (24 ppg) during the regular season,
averaged team-highs in points (24.5 ppg) and assists (5.5 apg) in the
playoffs. The six-time All-Star appeared to wear down against Detroit’s
tenacious defense, as he tried to take the LA on his back when it needed a
boost.

“No, I never ran out of gas, I felt like my energy was good,” said Bryant. “I
played hard all the way down to the Final buzzer, but my energy felt fine.”

The intimidating duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant may have played their last
game together. Together, Bryant and O’Neal led the Lakers to three
championships (2000, 2001, 2002) and four finals appearances.

“Kobe is a great player,” said O’Neal. “Every great player needs a one-two
punch, and obviously me and him are the one-two punch. But like I said
earlier, it’s going to be a funny summer. Everyone’s going to take care of
their own business and everyone’s going to do what’s best for them, and I
don’t know what that entails.”

What about Shaq?

The 32-year-old O’Neal is still the best center in the league. His size is
hard to contain, but he needs to have talent around him to win. After all,
basketball is a played by five players not one. The fact is that O’Neal and
Bryant need each other.

But, the fact remains that O’Neal, who should be back with the Lakers, knows
basketball is still a business.

“I’ll always do what’s best for me, and I’m not sure really where the
organization wants to go from here,” said O’Neal. “It’s all a business.
Whatever happens, happens.”

No matter what anybody says, the fact remains that the Lakers are Shaq’s team.
LA needs to do whatever it can to make its All-Star center happy and should
try to build around the cornerstone of its franchise.

“This summer is going to be a different summer for a lot of people,” said
O’Neal. “Everyone is going to take care of their own business and everyone is
going to do what’s best for them, including me.”

What about the futures of veterans Karl Malone and Gary Payton?

The two players signed with the Lakers as free agents last offseason with the
hope that they could earn a ring. That obviously did not happen. So, what’s
next?

It would not be a surprise if the 40-year-old Malone decides to retire. He
battled through a knee injury in the finals and was not able to play in Game 5
because of the injury. The former Utah Jazz also has the right to opt out of
the contract that he signed with the Lakers.

“You know what, I think it’s a little early to say,” Malone said about whether
he would be back with the Lakers next season. “But, I’ve never been a guy who
wanted to jump from team to team to team, and I’ll make that decision. But
I’ll say this: If I meet with my doctor in the next couple of days, and I
can’t be a 100 percent by training camp – not 95, not 99 – then I’ll make that
decision.”

The 35-year-old Payton, who also can opt out of his contract and become a free
agent, was not happy with his role on the Lakers. The Oregon State product did
not feel that he fit into the Lakers’ scheme on offense. He averaged 14.6
points and 5.5 assists in 82 games during the regular season. However, in the
postseason his production decreased as he averaged just 7.8 points and 5.3
helpers. The best thing here is for Payton and the Lakers to go their separate
ways.

Phil Jackson, who has won nine titles as a head coach, may have coached his
last game for the Lakers. What is next in Jackson’s future?

“My timetable is to meet with the management of the Lakers after the season,
discuss some things that we have to discuss as an organization,” said Jackson.
“And then we’ll make a decision from there.

“But right now I would say that it’s a pretty slim chance that I’ll be back
coaching next year. It’s a pretty slim chance. I’ve had a lot of persuasion
given to me by these kids, they were hoping I could win the tenth and retire,
but maybe losing this one, this opportunity is enough for me to say that it’s
time to give it up. ”

The Lakers’ offseason will probably play out like a soap opera. It should be
fun to watch.

LAL