Wednesday , Jun , 23 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

Can Payton still help the Lakers?

By Warren Blatt, Sports Network NBA Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) – Gary Payton decided to remain with the
Los Angeles Lakers, as he exercised a $5.4 million option for the 2004-05
season.

The 35-year-old Payton signed as a free agent with the Lakers last summer with
the hopes of capturing the first NBA title of his career. That did not happen,
as LA fell in five games to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals.

After a solid regular season, Payton struggled in the playoffs for the
Lakers. He started all 82 games during the regular season for LA and averaged
14.6 points and a team-high 5.5 assists. However, Payton averaged just 7.8
points and 5.3 helpers in 22 games in the postseason.

A 14-year veteran, Payton did not seem to be happy with his role in head coach
Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. Things have changed, as Jackson is not going
to return to LA’s bench and there will be a new general with a new system.
Payton, who has played in nine All-Star Games in his career, will get the
opportunity to redeem himself next season.

Winning a championship was the original reason Payton decided to sign with the
Lakers. With a vacancy at head coach, the possibility of the dominant force in
the middle Shaquille O’Neal being traded, the chance of Karl Malone retiring
and Kobe Bryant’s future on and off the court in limbo, is LA still the best
place for Payton to earn a championship ring?

If Payton would have decided to opt out of his contract and test the free
agent market, he may have found it very difficult to find a team that was
willing to pay him the same amount of money he will earn in LA. Ironically,
when Payton left Milwaukee, which acquired him from Seattle in a blockbuster
trade in February 2003, to sign with the Lakers it was thought that he was
taking a huge pay cut for the chance to win a title. With the soap opera that
has started in LA, the point guard can’t be staying with the Lakers because of
his chance to win a title.

Originally selected out of Oregon State by the SuperSonics in the first
round (second pick overall) of the 1990 NBA Draft, Payton does own
career-averages of 18 points, 7.2 assists and 2.02 steals per game. He has
played 1,109 regular-season contests and 122 playoff games. Unfortunately, it
seems that Payton’s best days have passed him by.

Nicknamed “The Glove” because of his tenacious defense, Payton did not seem to
have the intensity in the playoffs that is needed to help get a team to the
promised land. He seemed disinterested at times, and was clearly outplayed in
the finals by Detroit’s Chauncey Billups. For a player that was supposedly
desperate to get a ring, Payton did not step up his game.

The Oregon State product did not hurt his chances of making the Hall-of-Fame
in the future with his performance in this year’s postseason, but he may have
shown that his career could be coming to an end. The days of Payton averaging
20 points and eight-plus assists are gone, but LA’s starting point guard can
still be a positive asset if he wants to be.

Payton’s effectiveness will depend highly on what kind of squad LA puts on the
court. At this point of his career, Payton is the type of player that needs to
be surrounded by talent. He is no longer capable of taking a team on his back
and carrying it victory.

The Lakers have to hope that Payton will come into this season with the
attitude that he has something to prove. The former Buck and SuperSonic is
not the same player he was even two years ago, but he can still be effective
in the right situation. If Payton does not play like someone who wants to
prove that he still has game, then LA simply has an aging, veteran player that
is just collecting a pay check.