Until Karl Malone offered, it had not occurred to General Manager Mitch Kupchak -- to anyone but Malone, it seems -- that Malone and Gary Payton would come to the Lakers in the same off-season.
In fact, Kupchak said Wednesday, he at times doubted that the Lakers -- well over the NBA salary cap and therefore severely limited in what they could bid -- would be particularly attractive to either, financially speaking.
But, two weeks ago, over lunch, Malone said he would play for $1.5 million, if the larger chunk went to Payton. The Lakers, then, were free to offer Payton a contract that would start at $4.9 million, still light by NBA superstar standards.
"Quite frankly," Kupchak said, "I didn't expect to get either one for just the mid-level [exception]."
On Tuesday night, several Laker executives -- Kupchak, Ronnie Lester, Bill Bertka and John Black -- sat in a hotel room, Malone on the telephone, everyone leaning in, everyone with their eye on the other side of the room. In the previous several days, with both having committed to the Lakers, Payton would call and ask if Malone was still in, and Malone would call and ask the same of Payton.
"When Gary walked through the door," Kupchak recalled, "I said, 'We did it.' "
The contracts were signed, and Kupchak breathed again.
"I could never have gone to a player of his stature and asked him to play for [$1.5 million]," Kupchak said. "I would have expected to be hung up on.
"That is so unique, to have a player such as Karl step forward and say, 'I'll take less. Give him more.' That's unique. That's the beauty of this thing. Karl and Gary are older and they know what they want. There's no guarantee it'll work. Nothing is ever guaranteed. But I think it has a chance."
Given the financial compromises both players made, Kupchak left the lengths of the contracts up to the players. Both agreed to two-year deals, the second year with player options.
Payton, five years younger than Malone, was offered as many as four years and chose flexibility instead. At this time next year, seven of the current 12 Lakers could be free agents, including Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher.
Kupchak, trying to have a good day, laughed at the prospect of what next July might bring.
"It's probably the way it should be," he said. "They should have the option to continue or not continue. But I will say we hardly, if ever, have lost a player we wanted to keep. So, we're not concerned."
Kupchak and Coach Phil Jackson spoke Wednesday, one of the topics being how much Malone would -- or could -- play center behind Shaquille O'Neal.
Their decision, with Malone's input, would have an impact on what Kupchak does from here, as he is mulling the addition of a backup center or front-court player in the coming weeks.
For that reason, Kupchak said, he has continued conversations with the agents for Robert Horry and Mark Madsen. He'll have only the veterans' minimum to offer.
"The door's not closed on either one," he said.
Malone and Payton will be introduced at a news conference this morning at Staples Center.... The team will bring 18 or 19 players to camp in Honolulu. Center Eric Chenowith, who played for the Lakers in the Long Beach summer league and will play for Phoenix on a summer-league team in Utah, could be invited.