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NBA FINALS: PERSPECTIVES

What He Signed Up For

Gary Payton didn't hide his frustration as he tried to adjust to the triangle and his role as a stand-still shooter. Despite this, if the Lakers win it all, it will be ...

June 06, 2004|J.A. Adande | Times Staff Writer

Gary Payton didn't sign up for it. Didn't matter. More than a week before he could officially affix his autograph to a free-agent contract with the Lakers, he was already discussing what life would be like as a Laker.

"It's not going to be about who gets the ball and all that stuff," Payton said that day, July 9. "That's over with. Me and Karl [Malone] have been in the league too long. We can sacrifice.

"If I can average 16 [points] and 10 [assists], I'm happy."

Almost 11 months later, he hadn't and he wasn't.

He frequently was out of sync with the offense and often was on the bench in the fourth quarter. For the regular season, he averaged 14.6 points and 4.2 assists, his lowest numbers since his early years with the Seattle SuperSonics. Usually among the most talkative players in the league, Payton often left the locker room after games without speaking to reporters.

It started off well enough. The good vibes from the summer, when Payton and Malone joined the Lakers at discount rates in late-career quests for a championship, spilled over into the first month of the season. Payton led the Lakers in scoring with 21 points in the opener, a 109-93 romp over Dallas, and he dished off 11 assists twice in the first six games.

He still didn't have a grasp of the triangle offense, but he grinned and said that as long as the Lakers kept pushing the ball upcourt for transition baskets, they didn't have to worry about the triangle. With the Lakers winning almost every time they stepped on the court, there wasn't much time for complaining. He even joked with Coach Phil Jackson about his reduced playing time, saying Jackson must have been saving his 35-year-old body for the playoffs.

But by Jan. 6, in the restricted space of the visitors' locker room in Minnesota, Payton was no longer mellow. The Lakers had lost three consecutive games, with another L to come the following night in Denver.

Malone had gone down with a knee injury in December, Shaquille O'Neal had just suffered a strained calf, and Payton felt helpless to do anything.

"I didn't sign up for this," Payton said.

By late February, Payton was giving a filibuster in Washington, expressing his unhappiness and implying that he wanted out.

"I want to be on the floor a little bit more," Payton said. "I want to get more touches, more scores, more opportunities."

What happened? Where was the love?

It started with Malone's injury Dec. 21. Malone had been Payton's partner, a sort of older brother to everyone on the team, and without him the locker room felt less like a clubhouse and more like a collection of office cubicles.

It coincided with Bryant's return to form after recovering from off-season knee surgery. As Bryant felt more confident in his physical abilities, he began to dominate the offense, leaving Payton in the lurch. Payton was content to penetrate and pass out to Bryant for open jump shots. But when Bryant began his solo work, it often left Payton out of position.

They just didn't work well together as a backcourt. Payton had most of his best games when Bryant did not play or did not assert himself. It was rare to see them excel at the same time.

It wasn't just about egos, it was about Xs and O's. As opponents began to shut off fast-break opportunities, Jackson insisted on running the offense.

The triangle never required the traditional point-guard skills of dribble penetration. It's based on passing and spacing, often leaving the point guard to stand and wait for a pass and take a jump shot. It worked well for John Paxson in Chicago and Derek Fisher in L.A., but not for Payton.

"I'm not a stand-still shooter," Payton said. "I do more of what Kobe does. I may penetrate and look for open people and be slashing and doing that. You have to work on that in the summer, or in the off-season to become that stand-still shooter. Me, I'm not that comfortable with that. I like moving, getting to the basket, throwing up runners and stuff like that.

"But I'm more of a [guy who] wants to handle the ball, control the ball, penetrate, get eight or nine assists and take 10 or 11 shots off floaters and runners.

"That's my game. I'm not a shooter. I'm more of a scorer. That's the way it is. And it's cool. You get one year that you adjust to something, and you've got to get the feel of it. The first year, it might not work out. That's when you go back in the summer and you say, 'Do I want to do this again? Yeah.' "

Payton has been vacillating like that all season, one minute sounding as if he can't wait to exercise his option to leave next summer, the next sounding as if he planned to be back for the second year of his contract.

His relationship with Jackson has chilled. Payton blew up after Jackson had left Payton on the bench for the fourth quarter of Game 2 in the opening playoff round, and Jackson's response was to sit Payton again in the fourth quarter of the next game.

Asked recently about his opinion of Jackson, Payton looked to his left, looked up, looked to the right and laughed.

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