Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Lakers facing 'Day After Tomorrow'

By Chad Ford
ESPN Insider

It's over.

The Lakers were outplayed, outhustled, out hearted every game by a team few believed could even make it to Game 5 of the Finals, much less close the series out there. Instead, it was the Lakers who hung on barely long enough to be humiliated 100-87 Tuesday night.

L.A.'s dream team is dead. Now GM Mitch Kupchak faces a real nightmare this summer. Phil Jackson claimed Tuesday night there was only a "slim chance" he'll return to L.A. Kobe Bryant still plans to opt out of his contract and become a free agent. Gary Payton and Karl Malone also can opt out.

O'Neal, the one guy stuck on the Lakers for at least two more seasons, sounds like he wants out, too.

"This summer is going to be a different summer for a lot of people," O'Neal said. "Everyone's going to take care of their own business; everyone's going to do what's best for them, including me. So we haven't made any of those decisions yet. But once those decisions are made, you will be well informed."

The Pistons were hungry, under-paid and under-appreciated. They shared, played nice with one another and worked together toward a common goal.

The Lakers, we are finding out, are everything NBA champs are not. They're spoiled, overpaid, selfish and, like O'Neal said, essentially businessmen in jerseys, looking out for No. 1.

"A team always beats a group of individuals," L.A.'s Rick Fox said. "We picked a poor time to be a group of individuals."

Something has to give.

"Now it's decision time for this team and what direction they are going to move," Jackson said at the press conference "Obviously, it's going to be a big statement that's going to be made in July. And [General Manager] Mitch Kupchak has done a very good job. They will make a move in August to rebuild this basketball club. I think they will be fine."

They? You mean "we" right?

"Well," he said, "that's yet to be determined, OK?"

Can Kupchak keep it together? Or is it time to start fresh in L.A.? Here's a look at what to expect, as Insider continues its summer blueprint series.

Lakers Summer Blueprint
DRAFT: The Lakers are picking 27th this year. They've had their eye on Sasha Vujacic, a 6-foot-7 point guard from Slovenia for more than a year. Vujacic is older and more experienced than most players in the draft. He's an outstanding shooter with good court vision, and drafting him at this spot makes a lot of sense for the Lakers.

However, don't be surprised if L.A.'s moves this summer include moving up in the draft. The Lakers desperately need a young star to infuse a little life in the franchise. Young point guards like Devin Harris, Ben Gordon or Shaun Livingston would be great fits. A young, athletic big like Dwight Howard would be terrific, too. To get high enough in the draft to nab one of those guys, though, the team is obviously going to have to part with a major player or two. But if the focus becomes rebuilding, that won't be so hard.

FREE AGENCY: Everything revolves around Kobe, and it could take a while to sort it all out. Over the course of the season we've heard it all: Kobe to the Clippers. Kobe to the Suns, to the Spurs, even to the Knicks. We've also heard just as much talk that he'll never leave the Lakers. If Jackson truly is out of the way, Kobe finally can wrestle control. Owner Jerry Buss values Kobe over any other player or coach on the team. If Kobe wants Shaq gone? The Lakers just might do it.

How all of that plays out over the next two months is anyone's guess. Kobe still must attend to his rape trial, and that certainly will have a cooling effect on the negotiations. If Kobe really wants to stay, and if he really wants Shaq to go, it's going to take Kupchak a while to find a deal that makes sense for the Lakers.

It also won't be easy for Kobe's suitors to clear the cap space they need to sign him. The Clippers likely would have to trade their No. 2 pick and one other player to be able to afford Kobe. They'll also have to refrain from re-upping Quentin Richardson to keep a space open for him.

The Spurs have free agents of their own to attend to, but they'll need every penny to sign Kobe. Where does that leave Manu Ginobili, Hedo Turkoglu and Bruce Bowen? How long will the Spurs wait for a decision?

The Suns still need to clear around $6 million in cap space. They're trying to convince Charlotte to take Jahidi White in the expansion draft, but it likely will cost them their first-round pick this year to get it done. The Suns don't want to pay that high a price unless they know Kobe's coming.

Derek Fisher can join Kobe, Payton and Malone in opting out. Malone and Fisher are expected to test the waters. Payton has been unhappy in L.A., but he faces a pretty stark financial reality. As poorly as he played this year, there's no guarantee another team is going to offer him the same money he's due in L.A. ($4.9 million). Payton likely will wait to see what the Lakers' gameplan is before deciding whether to stick it out another year.

TRADES: The Lakers just don't have the assets to make a trade without breaking up the dynamic duo. Trading Brian Cook, Kareem Rush or Devean George just isn't going to cut it.

Will they trade Shaq? That's the $27 million question. Whenever a player makes that much, trading him is almost impossible. His salary eclipses the entire Utah Jazz payroll. Shaq may be the most dominant player on the planet, but if a team has to gut its entire roster to get him, what's the point? When you factor in Shaq's age, his poor conditioning and questionable motivation, the decision becomes even murkier.

The same holds true for L.A. Why trade him unless the team is getting better in the process? There's talk the Pacers may be interested. Ditto for the Magic But let's do a reality check. Indiana has the salaries to get it done, but it would cost them Jermaine O'Neal in the process. Are they willing to give up someone so young just for two years of Shaq? If the Lakers would accept O'Neal, Austin Croshere and Scot Pollard in return for Shaq, the Pacers would have to consider it. Al Harrington and Jonathan Bender could take over for Jermaine. But it's still an awfully big price to pay down the road.

There's almost no way the Magic could afford Shaq, short of the Lakers agreeing to take on Grant Hill's contract. I can't see that happening unless Hill assures everyone he's retiring and the money will come off the books this winter. Even then the trade would cost the Magic the No. 1 pick, Juwan Howard and a few other throw-ins. If that's the case, wouldn't it be easier just to swap T-Mac for Kobe?

The Lakers could attempt to work a sign-and-trade with Kobe if they're sure he's going to leave. That would allow them to salvage something in return. There's been talk of a McGrady-Kobe swap for years. But for that to work, Kobe would have to agree to play in Orlando. Given the crumbling state of the franchise, I find it hard to believe he would. T-Mac is from there, and he still wants out.

However, the Lakers can't risk standing pat. If Kobe leaves without compensation, Malone, Payton and Fisher will follow. The Lakers will be left with Shaq, a bunch of role players and no cap room to sign a top-flight free agent. At that point they'll be forced to trade Shaq, but his value will plummet as every team in the league tries to cash in on the fire sale.

COACHING: Jackson sounded like he was giving his farewell speech Tuesday night.

"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," he said. "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 would win the 10th and retire. But maybe losing this one, this opportunity is enough for me to say that it's time to give it up. But right now, I'm not going to make that decision or give that statement."

By almost every account, Jackson will be the first to leave. The man everyone thought would be his successor, Byron Scott, couldn't wait around and took the Hornets' job instead. There isn't another coach available with Jackson's stature. Mike Fratello, George Karl and a plethora of other castoffs and assistants aren't going to cut it.

FRONT OFFICE: Kupchak was the NBA's golden boy last summer after convincing Payton and Malone to join up. However, with his team on the brink of disaster, he could just as easily turn out to be the goat. Why didn't the Lakers use their money on younger players to keep rebuilding?

While Joe Dumars, his counterpart in Detroit, was building a team that could win now and in the future, Kupchak was obsessed with only today. Now that it didn't work, the flexibility to rebuild quickly just isn't there. He can try to patch things together between Shaq and Kobe, or he can blow the roster up. The patching up thing may work for another year, but in the long-term it's destined for failure. Blowing up the Lakers will be unpopular. Given where they're at right now as far as player development and cap space goes -- even with Kobe, Payton, Fisher and Malone off the books the Lakers still would be over the cap -- it could be a long, long process.

Back in February we warned that a Lakers' worst case scenario could be unfolding before our eyes. If Kupchak manages to convince Kobe to stay, the damage can be minimized. If he can't, the Lakers will resemble L.A. after the twisters tore through town in the movie the Day After Tomorrow -- a disaster area.