SAN ANTONIO — Just as Shaquille O'Neal was getting to like him, David Robinson leaves, off to raise a family and perhaps become mayor of San Antonio, if he'd agree to the demotion from saint of San Antonio.
Robinson's spring retirement party appropriately coincided with the NBA championship flotilla through the Riverwalk, a few weeks after Robinson's Spurs had defeated the broken and weepy Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals.
That failure put the Lakers in rebuilding mode; Robinson's departure similarly affected the Spurs. And so the franchises that have won the last five league titles -- three by the Lakers, bookended by the Spurs -- meet tonight with a mingling of new and familiar faces and themes.
Karl Malone and Gary Payton have been all the Lakers had hoped for, both in their games and their impatience with all matters self-destructive. In particular, Malone has saved the Lakers from themselves, repeatedly stating that the rifts are closed and wounds are healed, then glaring at the rifts and wounds in case the message wasn't clear.
So, rather than arriving in the season's second week with questions about their depth and hunger, the Lakers are 4-0, have often played hard, have occasionally played well and have for the moment set aside the issues of Shaq vs. Kobe and the distraction of the People of Colorado vs. Kobe Bryant. As O'Neal himself was saying Tuesday night in Milwaukee about the rift with Bryant, "It was at best a war of words, not a war of feelings," which means no one will admit to even a semi-bruised ego.
While the Lakers appear to find stretches when they all match strides -- they've had double-digit leads in all four games and before Tuesday's game in Milwaukee had almost never trailed -- Coach Phil Jackson said they're really not that close.
"It's too early for us to say that," he said. "This road trip is going to be a critical road trip to acclimate the personalities, the pecking order, establishing a rhythm on the road, that grit element a team has to have."
Meanwhile, the Spurs moved out Robinson, Speedy Claxton, Stephen Jackson and Danny Ferry and notably moved in Rasho Nesterovic, Ron Mercer, Hedo Turkoglu and former Laker Robert Horry. Temporarily, and most critically for tonight's game, they are without Tim Duncan (ankle) and Tony Parker (ankle), who combined to average nearly 43 points in the six-game conference semifinals.
That series propelled the Spurs to six-game victories against the Dallas Mavericks and New Jersey Nets, allowed Robinson his stylish exit and prompted Laker General Manager Mitch Kupchak's stroke-of-midnight (Eastern time) phone calls to Malone and Payton.
Malone, who started it all with his offer to play for $1.5 million if Payton could see his way to come for $4.9 million, said this summer that the Lakers' loss made his interest in them keener. He did not want it to appear as though he were coming along for the ride, so a partial reclamation project was attractive.
In the days after they were rejected by Jason Kidd and Jermaine O'Neal, the Spurs made a hard run at signing Malone. They, after all, were the defending champions, had an in-his-prime Duncan, were relatively free of legal and personality entanglements, and had the capacity to pay Malone what he was worth.
Alas, Malone had his heart set on the Lakers and Los Angeles and had given his word to Payton, who had committed based in part on Malone, and Kupchak.
"Gary Payton is huge for that program because he's going to involve so many different people and get things done at the end of shot clocks," Spur Coach Gregg Popovich said Wednesday afternoon. "His leadership and his abilities are going to be huge for that team. You add Karl to that group, his ability to be isolated, to play the game with four other people, to rebound, to give them toughness, to give them professionalism -- they're a monster group. No doubt about it."
When the pair announced their intentions, Malone a couple of days after Payton, Popovich said: "I thought it was a no-brainer. I think anybody would want two guys like that. They're not just two talented players. They're leaders. They're Hall of Fame players. They're professionals. You just jump all over that if you have an opportunity to do that."
The formalities that come with new rotations and a handful of injuries have the 3-2 Spurs bouncing along on a win-one, lose-one pace, both losses on the road, in Denver and Memphis.
"We're a little down right now," Popovich said.
The Lakers lost all four regular-season games to the Spurs last season. There was no mistaking that chill in the playoffs, where the Spurs were not the emotionally beaten team of the previous three postseasons. The Spurs fought, the Lakers thinned, and two organizations changed their headings for it.
"If they continue to accept their roles like they look to be doing out there," Spur forward Malik Rose said, "then they're going to really, really be something. We have guys here who are very talented, who have accepted their roles also. They may not be as talented as a Gary Payton or a Karl Malone, but when you put the talent we have in our system matched up with a Tim Duncan, we can be effective against anybody."