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Lakers Might Fit the 'Glove'

Former All-Star point guard Payton appears to be near the top of list of off-season possibilities.

May 29, 2003|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

The new name with Laker management is Gary Payton, who is most definitely not a power forward, but is a free agent, and represents the range of off-season philosophies for a franchise still measuring the magnitude of its recent playoff failure.

The Lakers hope to rework their roster with a combination of their mid-level salary-cap exception (about $4.7 million), the lower exceptions (the highest of which is $1.4 million), trades and draft picks (Nos. 24 and 32).

They expect to do it around Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, cornerstones of an organization that won three consecutive titles but stumbled in this month's Western Conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs, and perhaps with a subtle offensive shift that would emphasize Bryant rather than O'Neal, depending on O'Neal's physical condition come October.

The mid-level exception likely will buy the Lakers a very good power forward or a very good guard, but not both.

The summer free-agent class is thick with power forwards who might be convinced to take a pay cut for the good of a championship run -- P.J. Brown, Juwan Howard, Brad Miller and Karl Malone among them. Howard, in particular, seems most enthusiastic.

Or the Lakers could choose to address their backcourt shortcomings first, with the likes of Payton, who made $12.6 million last season, which was split between Seattle and Milwaukee, and will be 35 in July. In that scenario, they probably would have to settle for a lesser power forward, with any discomfort soothed by the titles they won with heavy minutes at the position from A.C. Green, Horace Grant and Samaki Walker.

Sean Rooks, Gary Trent, Derrick Coleman, Tyrone Hill, Popeye Jones and Donnell Harvey are free agents and represent the types of players who could be added, presumably at a lesser rate. Also, it is possible Malone would play for less than the full mid-level exception, though the Lakers are wary of Malone's dominating personality and need for the ball.

While the Lakers have not ruled out signing Scottie Pippen, their interest in the 37-year-old guard apparently has waned. He is recovering from midseason knee surgery, struggled in Portland's first-round loss to the Dallas Mavericks, and has not played more than 64 games in a season in four years.

That has brought them to Payton, though it is five weeks before they can even make a call to him and seven weeks before they could sign Payton or any free agent.

There are the usual concerns about triangle compatibility and front-court needs and whether a 35-year-old man is really the defensive answer, not to mention Payton's willingness to cut his salary by two-thirds. But Payton is consistently one of the better defensive guards in the league and the Lakers, according to club sources, love his competitive spirit and his willingness to share the ball, critical if he were to one day stand with O'Neal and Bryant.

Payton averaged 20.4 points in 80 games, 52 of them in Seattle and, after a trade-deadline deal that sent Ray Allen to the SuperSonics, 28 in Milwaukee. He also ranked second in the league in assists (8.3 per game).

Laker General Manager Mitch Kupchak on Wednesday said only that management is "still in the process" of determining its course. The draft is June 26. The club is reviewing free agents and, since it is not in the playoffs, is free to make a trade, though the number of players the Lakers both could and would trade is minimal.

Kupchak and Coach Phil Jackson are expected to meet with owner Jerry Buss any day to discuss the summer's direction, whatever it might be.

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Among the internal debates is whether to bring back Robert Horry. The team holds a $5.3-million option, and the consensus is they'd like him to return, but at a lesser rate. The danger there is Horry would become a free agent, allowing him to consider other offers and, potentially, opportunities to play his final years closer to his home in Houston.

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Two years after he left the Lakers as a free agent to sign with the Washington Wizards, guard Tyronn Lue is eager to return, and Laker management would love to have him.

Lue, a free agent, was a regular at Staples Center during the Western Conference playoffs, still counts several Lakers among his close friends, and is telling associates he would love to play in Los Angeles again.

A 6-foot-0 guard whose game matured in two seasons playing with Michael Jordan in Washington, Lue's greatest value would be in his end-to-end defense, perhaps the Lakers' greatest vulnerability this season. He averaged 8.6 points and 3.5 assists in 26.5 minutes.

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Industry insiders expect Bryant's endorsement deal with Nike to be worth about $40 million over five years. It will be announced in mid-June.... Laker assistant Jim Cleamons is expected to draw some interest from the NBA's many coaching vacancies.

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