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J.A. Adande

O'Neal Needs to Extend Himself

October 02, 2003|J.A. Adande

HONOLULU — Add another subplot to the Laker season. As if the table of contents weren't long enough, what with the People of the State of Colorado v. Kobe Bean Bryant, Phil Jackson vs. Red Auerbach's championship coaching record, the Lakers vs. the Kings, Spurs, Mavericks and all other comers, now there's this one: Shaquille O'Neal vs. the Lakers.

That's probably the way O'Neal will paint it, now that Jackson is saying that O'Neal better be ready to work hard this training camp, and the Lakers are essentially saying, "Hold that thought" when it comes to a possible contract extension for O'Neal.

It will be interesting to see O'Neal's state of mind when the Laker veterans start training camp Friday. Will he want to shut up Jackson, who has been calling him out ever since last season ended? Will he want to show something to management, with another nine-digit contract extension riding on it?

If he does, it will be good for everyone involved.

A motivated Shaq is an unstoppable Shaq -- and O'Neal hasn't had this much to prove at the start of a season since 1999.

Back then he was a Big Disappointment. He had no championships to his name, and had been swept out of five of his six playoff appearances -- including a four-game brooming at the hands of San Antonio that swept the Lakers out of the Forum.

At O'Neal's insistence, the Lakers brought in Jackson. Jackson said from the outset that he was attracted to the job by the chance to coach O'Neal, the game's dominant big man. Then he proceeded to prod, tweak and challenge his superstar center. O'Neal responded with the best season of his career, averaging 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.0 blocked shots.

Shaq got his bling-bling, the franchise got its cha-ching (thanks to 13 cash-generating playoff games at $taples Center) and Jackson looked smarter than ever. Winners all around.

Amazing what happens when the winning stops. Last season started with O'Neal's aching toe and ended with people in Lakerland pointing fingers. He put off surgery, then sat out the first 12 games of the season.

And it didn't get any better at the finish. For the first time since he put on a Laker uniform, O'Neal's scoring average did not increase in the playoffs. Even if it only dipped a half a point, from 27.5 to 27.0, that was a damning statistic for a guy who staked his reputation on getting it done in money time.

Not only was Tim Duncan the regular-season most valuable player for the second consecutive season, he ended O'Neal's run of three NBA Finals MVP awards, as the Lakers bowed out to Duncan's Spurs in the second round of the playoffs. People started saying that it was Duncan, not O'Neal, who was the best big man in the NBA.

When O'Neal lets down the bravado a little bit, he'll acknowledge that the criticism matters. Shaq likes to be liked. And yes, sometimes everyone around L.A. can be quick to forget that he was the prime factor in bringing three more championship banners to this proud organization.

"I would like to get a little bit more respect," he said during a quiet moment in the San Antonio series, when the media swarm buzzed off elsewhere.

Then it was back to the big, bad Daddy.

"But when it's all said and done, I will be memorized, I will be recognized," he said. "I know they changed the game because of me. I don't worry about what people say."

But he does worry about what people pay. That $125-million, NBA landscape-changing contract he signed seven years ago ended last spring. Now he begins a three-year, $88-million extension that will pay him $26.5 million this season.

He's eligible for another extension that could pay him well over $100 million for three years. But the Lakers don't seem to be in a rush to be spending money.

At one point Jackson appeared ready to sign an extension to his contract that ends after this season. It seemed to simply be a matter of Jerry Buss coming back from Europe and meeting with his agent. But Buss came back to L.A., and now has come to Hawaii for training camp, and still no extension.

Jackson didn't seem to mind one bit, and said Wednesday that it wasn't a priority.

At this point, it's too risky for the Lakers to commit to anything long-term. Gary Payton and Karl Malone can both opt out of their contracts. By next summer, Kobe Bryant could either be a free agent (if he opts out) or an imprisoned felon (if he's found guilty of a sexual assault charge in Eagle, Colo.)

What good is it if they secure O'Neal but aren't in position to put anyone around him? They would have him at age 35, 36 and 37, consuming 60-70% of the salary cap on his own, and he wouldn't have enough help to do any damage in the playoffs.

In short, the Lakers could become the Minnesota Timberwolves, with the highest-paid player in the game and nothing to show for it.

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