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Do Lakers Have a New Lineup Lined Up?

Pro basketball: Other teams say O'Neal deal must be waiting, but Kupchak says they're only thinking through all possibilities.

June 29, 1996|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Lakers know how good it can be. Shaquille O'Neal starting at center, Elden Campbell and Cedric Ceballos at forward, Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel at guard, and everyone celebrating with a champagne shower after winning the NBA title. Kobe Bryant getting grounded when he tries to sneak a sip.

Then there's their Armageddon.

Corie Blount at center.

Mitch Kupchak at power forward.

Bryant scoring 40 points . . . against the Lakers.

Jerry West in jail after strangling Vlade Divac.

These are tenuous times indeed around the Forum, with Divac still on the verge of being traded despite his protests, Campbell about to become a free agent and no true center in hand as a replacement. The plan is to relocate the Magic castle, O'Neal, but even that became more of a waiting game with Friday's announcement that the pursuit of free agents will start July 9 instead of Monday, per terms of the latest labor piece.

Around the league, reaction to the news that the Lakers had ticketed Divac for shipment without someone to step in at center could be summed up in a word: Fix!

Coaches and executives say it jokingly (probably) and with envy (definitely), wondering in which safe the Lakers are hiding that signed contract from O'Neal. West would never leave himself so exposed at a critical position.

Would he?

"Any respectable general manager and especially Jerry West--one of the wisest and one of the brightest, some say the brightest because he's so good at what he does--I couldn't imagine them doing a deal without other pieces lined up," said a member of one front office. "Something's got to be up."

Added another: "I think Jerry would have a pretty good feel for the situation. Then he would try to demonstrate that a decision this far in advance would show his hope and faith to Shaq.

"Not that Shaq wouldn't start over Vlade if they were both there, but now there's not any contention about it. Either way, Jerry West wins this thing by sending the message."

The Lakers appreciate the compliment, but could probably do without peers' talk of tampering, even as a joke, this being a front office that covets its reputation as an organization that always tries to do the right thing. The Lakers prefer to think of a Divac deal at this stage, while acknowledging it's a gamble, as another one of those right things.

Have a chance at a superstar, go for it.

If it goes bad, what have they lost? Divac, of course, but he wasn't there many nights last season anyway, even if he was in uniform. And O'Neal too. But they figure Plan B doesn't look so bad--make a push for a second-tier big man such as Brian Williams, Jim McIlvaine or Chris Gatling and save Fort Knox for another position or another free-agent class.

"Everything we do here, we've spent a lot of time talking it through and thinking it through with all our basketball people, including our owner," said Kupchak, for now only the general manager.

"We like to think we consider all the possibilities before we make a move. Obviously we've thought through all the possibilities. If there's a risk in any deal, we'd like to think it's one with good odds because of the thought we have put in."

The risk of this deal in particular may be getting to the Hornets as the delay between a handshake agreement and official completion is held up by salary-cap technicalities, now pushed back to the same July 9. From Charlotte comes the sense of a growing undercurrent that the Hornets are getting cold feet, especially after speaking to Divac's agent, Marc Fleisher, on Friday and hearing firsthand that this is no bluff for a contract extension.

The Lakers, after speaking with the Hornets, still seem confident--"I don't want to comment on what was discussed, but we're optimistic that something real attractive will happen for both teams soon," Kupchak said, while declining to comment directly on the Divac situation. And Arn Tellem, Bryant's agent, said the deal will definitely happen, adding that Bryant will not play for any other team.

The Hornets, perhaps needing some reassuring, get to make a direct appeal sometime this weekend. Divac maintains his stance, but has at least agreed to speak with team officials by phone from Europe. It's a start, unless it's the finish.

Laker Notes

Latest Laker trade rumor making the rounds among teams: Cedric Ceballos to New York for two of the Knicks' three first-round draft picks--John Wallace, Walter McCarty or Dontae' Jones, all forwards. . . . Magic Johnson has sent his official letter of retirement to the NBA office. His next comeback will now also require approval from three-fourths of the teams. . . . Vlade Divac scored 13 points in limited action Friday as Yugoslavia opened the SuperCup tournament with an 82-69 victory over Greece.

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