Lakers' run could be coming to an end
By Chad Ford
NBA Insider
Send an Email to Chad Ford Wednesday, February 25
Updated: February 26
10:54 AM ET

Begin dream sequence: It's July 14, 2004.

Kobe Bryant has just announced he'll be leaving the Lakers to sign with the
cross-town rival Clippers.

Phil Jackson, unable to get the big bucks he wants in his contract extension,
hops on his Hog and rides off into the sunset toward Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Gary Payton and Karl Malone already have fled for the hills. Both took huge pay
cuts to come and play for a potential world championship in Los Angeles. With
Phil and Kobe gone, both guys begin their quest for a team with more money and a
better shot at a title in 2005.

The once-mighty Lakers now look something like this: Derek Fisher at the point,
Kareem Rush at the two, Devean George and Rick Fox at small forward, Brian Cook
at the four and the mighty Shaquille O'Neal looking bewildered in the middle of
this crap.

The phone rings ... it's Shaq. He isn't happy.

End dream sequence, with Lakers owner Jerry Buss waking up in a cold sweat.


Buss' beloved Lakers once looked destined to run roughshod over the NBA this
season. The combo of Payton, Kobe, Malone and Shaq gave the Lakers one of the
most dominant starting fives in the history of the NBA. They had power, speed,
athleticism and veteran leadership. But a season of injuries, controversy and
uninspired play have destroyed any notion that the Lakers are locks for the NBA
title.

Kobe's eyes are wandering, should he ever get out of his legal mess in Colorado.
Phil seems in desperate need of a pick-me-up from Dr. Phil. Payton is calling
L.A. a circus. The Mailman hasn't delivered in months. And Shaq is starting to
look a little human as his body struggles to handle the pounding of the NBA
season.

How quickly the best of times disintegrate into the worst of times.

As the Lakers Turn

The Lakers' problems have been well documented this season and seemingly get
rehashed, by the Lakers themselves, daily.

Wednesday, Kobe told reporters in Denver that "at the end of the season I'm
really going to sit down and evaluate every option, break down every team.
Denver is one of them."

He also threw some love in the direction of Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe after
Vandeweghe pled with Nuggets fans to go easy on Kobe.

"I appreciate that," he said. "I appreciate his support. That is something that
he didn't have to do, but he did it. That shows a lot of support on his part. I
really appreciate that. It goes a long way with me."

Shaq was in rare form as well, criticizing Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak for not
giving him an extension at Shaq's going rate. The two sides reportedly are
nearly $10 million per season apart on the contract.

"The general manager we have needs to take notes from me," Shaq said. "It's a
fact. Because if I was general manager, with a team like this, there'd be no
problems. No problems with the Diesel, no problems with the coach, no problems
with the Kobester, no problems with the owner."

Did we mention that Jackson on Sunday began laying out the conditions upon which
he might leave the Lakers this summer?

"My deal all along with this club has been how willing are the players to work
under the duration of how long I stay and coach?" Jackson said. "It's reciprocal
in that direction. If these guys are willing to do the work that's necessary for
me to coach, then I have no problem. If they make it difficult for me to coach,
then I don't want to put up with it."

Did anyone bother to tell the Lakers there are still 25 games to go in the
regular season?

Trade Shaq?

Let's just go ahead and fast forward to the future. There is a very good chance,
if you listen to those close to Kobe, that he'll flee the Lakers this summer in
an effort to find himself and prove he can win a title without Shaq. There's
also a very good chance, if you listen to Phil, that he, too, may be at the end
of his rope. The constant turmoil in L.A. has taken his toll. If Jackson still
wants to coach, why not do it somewhere more peaceful?

If Kobe and Phil bolt, what happens next has been less speculated. Payton and
Malone already are giving indications they may leave the Lakers this summer --
even if Kobe and Phil stick around. The constant pain of dealing with the media
circus has worn them raw. Going from the serene hills of Salt Lake to the smoggy
press in L.A. was probably enough to put Malone on the IL without the knee
injury.

If Kobe, Phil, Payton and Malone are all gone -- and that's a lot more likely
than you want to believe, Laker fans -- Buss has a serious problem.

He'll be left with Shaq, still the most dominant player in the NBA, but no real
players or cap space.

Shaq makes so much money ($28 million next year) that he almost single-handedly
puts the Lakers over the cap. Even once you trim Kobe, Payton and Malone from
the roster, the team is still a paltry $700,000 under the cap this summer. It
will be difficult -- no, impossible -- to replace the three Lakers' starters
with that.

Figure in Shaq's desire for an extension, without a pay cut, and his declining
production brought on by age and injuries, and the Lakers will be stuck with the
most difficult decision a team has had to face in the last decade -- is it be
time to trade Shaq?

I can tell you this. GMs already are circling the Staples Center like vultures.
Many of them have seen the writing on the wall and believe the future will
unfold much as we have just written here.

GMs already are laying plans to woo Kobe, based on intel they're getting from
Kobe's camp. A few other GMs already are dreaming about what it may take to pry
away Shaq.

Are we getting ahead of ourselves here? Would Buss ever trade him?

"He'd be crazy to," one league executive told Insider. "I think there are only
two or three players in this league that are untradeable, and Shaq is one of
them. We had these same questions in Chicago when it was clear that the Bulls
dynasty was at an end. I still believe that Shaq is the piece that you build
around. If you can find one more good piece, you're right back on the road to a
championship."

You can clearly make an argument that Shaq, alongside any supporting cast, is
good enough to get a team to the playoffs. He remains the one player in the
league for whom no team has an answer. But with no cap room, a low draft pick
and few, if any, tradeable assets, can Shaq do it alone?

Another GM has a very different take. "Shaq's trade value begins slipping every
year now. He's getting older, his body has all kinds of aches and pains, and his
motivation just isn't what it was. I think you trade him now, while he can still
bring you a young all-star or two in return. Otherwise, if things get worse in
L.A., you're going to be stuck."

Nowitzki for Shaq?

What could you get for Shaq? Would the Mavs give up Dirk Nowitzki and Steve
Nash? Laugh all you want Mavs fans, but a combo of Michael Finley, Antoine
Walker, Antawn Jamison and Shaq would still be enough to easily make the Mavs
favorites for the NBA crown.

Would the Pacers trade a much younger Jermaine O'Neal and perhaps a young player
like Al Harrington or Jonathan Bender in return for Shaq? Before you scoff at
it, Pacers fans, Larry Bird would be the first to tell you the move would
install the Pacers as favorites to win a championship in the next two or three
seasons.

Would the Kings hand off Chris Webber, Mike Bibby and Vlade Divac for Shaq?
Would the Nets give up Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson? Would the Grizzlies
give up Pau Gasol, Bonzi Wells and Mike Miller? Would the Nuggets part ways with
Carmelo Anthony, Nene and Marcus Camby?

The possibilities are endless and here's why:

"With a healthy, motivated Shaq, you're one really good player away from winning
an NBA title," another GM told Insider. "I really believe that. The Lakers may
be the only team in the league who wouldn't have the flexibility to pair Shaq
with someone else if Kobe and those guys all leave. Everyone else, assuming you
could keep one good player on your roster, becomes the team to beat. That's how
dominant he is. And that's how hungry everyone is to bring home a NBA title."

Begin dream sequence ...

While thoughts of Shaq playing in Dallas, Indiana, Sacramento, New Jersey and
Memphis dance inside GMs' heads ... Buss is having a different dream.

The Lakers have just won an NBA Championship. Kobe looks around and decides that
playing with the Lakers -- not the Clippers, Suns, Spurs or Nuggets -- is where
he really belongs. Phil signs on to be the ring leader a few more years. Gary
and Karl, basking in the glow of their first NBA championship, see their
sacrifice rewarded with that coveted ring. Shaq follows Kevin Garnett's lead and
takes a hefty pay cut to ensure Laker dominance for the rest of the decade.

Everyone lives happily ever after.

Sleep tight Jerry. We won't bother waking you until it's over.


Around the League

McDyess a Net? Antonio McDyess will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
From the sound of things, he may already know where he wants to play next.
McDyess has a great relationship with Jason Kidd and said Wednesday he'd love to
hook up with Kidd again.

"That would be great, definitely would be great," McDyess told the N.Y. Daily
News. "Who wouldn't want to play with Jason Kidd, who I'd say is the best point
guard in the league? To play with him again would be great; to get up the court
with him, getting easy baskets. It just makes things so much easier. It would be
good if it ever happens."

The Nets won't have cap room to sign a free agent straight away, but they could
throw all or a part of their mid-level exception (roughly $5 million next year)
his way. It's unlikely McDyess, with his history of knee troubles, will command
anything more than that on the open market.

Negotiations with restricted free agent Kenyon Martin are expected to turn ugly
this summer, and McDyess could be the insurance Rod Thorn needs to take a hard
line on Martin.

Will Damp opt out? One of the bigger questions heading into free agency this
summer surrounds Warriors center Erick Dampier. Dampier has two more years, at
more than $8 million per, left on his contract, but he can opt out this summer
and become an unrestricted free agent.

With as many as six teams now looking at $9 million-plus in cap room, there
seems to enough cash in the market for Dampier to get a better deal. But
questions about his creaky knees and his lack of inspired play before this
season will make GMs think twice before inking him to a big deal.

So does Damp play it safe and collect the last two years of his contract, or
does he take the advice of new agent Dan Fegan and opt out?

Dampier claims that at this point in his career the most important thing is
winning.

"I haven't been to the playoffs, and I'm not getting any younger," he told the
Indianapolis Star. "I'm to the point now where I want to win games."

Dampier claims if he does opt out, he'd like to return to the Eastern
Conference, where the trees in the middle are little easier to cut down.

"I'd have a chance to be an All-Star," he said. "How many centers are there in
the East? Not to take anything away from Jamaal Magloire. But he made the
All-Star team in the East, so I know I can definitely (succeed)."

Who would have the money to pay Dampier? The Hawks, Bobcats and Pistons are the
only Eastern Conference teams with enough cash to give Dampier the type of deal
he's looking for. Unfortunately the Hawks and Bobcats won't give him the playoff
appearances he's looking for, and the Pistons have all their off-season money
earmarked for Mehmet Okur and Rasheed Wallace.

In the West, the Jazz, Nuggets, Clippers and Spurs will have a lot of cash, and
there figures to be interest from all four teams.

If Dampier was willing to take a paycut (to the $5 million, mid-level exception)
to play for a contender (unlikely when you consider who he just hired as his
agent) then teams like the Pacers, Mavericks and Knicks quickly move into the
picture.

Hawks dump Glover: The Hawks continued their housecleaning Wednesday when they
waived Dion Glover. Glover asked to be released after practice on Wednesday. He
was upset about losing his starting job to rookie Boris Diaw after the Hawks
traded away Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Theo Ratliff.

A source close to the Hawks told Insider recently that Glover, along with point
guard Jason Terry, were among the most disruptive players on the team. Glover
should clear waivers by Friday and be free to join a team of his choosing.