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Extreme Makeover

With changes coming, it'll be a long road back to the top, especially if Bryant and Jackson leave

June 17, 2004|Mark Heisler

So much for the fun part.

It's goodbye titles, parades, trash-talking as in the San Antonio Spurs' "asterisk season" and Sacramento's "Queens" and their "semi-civilized redneck" fans. Goodbye to the feuds, April wake-up calls and improbable runs to glory.

Whether or not you deem it payback for their arrogance, the end was poetic, with the inoffensive Detroit Pistons, who appeared out on their feet in an agonizingly low-scoring Eastern Conference finals, suddenly arising to smite the mighty Lakers, just when it seemed they had pulled off the most miraculous comeback of all.

This, of course, was followed by myriad sermons, as when ABC's Mike Tirico quoted Abraham Lincoln's "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

Not that it could have been otherwise after all those years of Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant high jinks, but by then, it was old news. (Nor was it original; I used the quote in my April 18 rankings and I, of course, copped it from Abe.)

On the surface, it did look like the Gold Dust Twins were turning on each other again, with O'Neal moaning he needed the ball and Bryant suggesting his indifference.

The truth, as suggested by the Bathroom Summit, when O'Neal, Bryant and the other three holdovers from their title runs invited Phil Jackson to a meeting, was they were on the exact same page.

While they were still together, O'Neal and Bryant would do everything in their power to win, including get along.

This seemed a good thing for the Lakers at the time. The really bad news turned out to be that their attitude wasn't even the problem. If it was, the future would be a lot easier, since attitudes could be adjusted.

The real problem is the Pistons just exposed them. As a group, the Lakers may not be over, but with or without defections, they're headed that way.

Putting all Jerry Buss' horses and all his men back together again will be hard in a best-case scenario. It will be harder if Buss doesn't feel like doubling top scale and paying Jackson

$12 million -- a year -- to stay.

Of course, if Bryant leaves, it will be off the charts.

The Lakers are now officially an old team, as O'Neal, 32, goes from being one of their young players into one of their middle-age ones.

When O'Neal was young, as recently as the 2002 Finals, he made the Lakers big enough and athletic enough, all by himself. Now he needs help and his No. 1 helper, Karl Malone, who is ancient at 40, was out, taking their interior defense with him.

This resulted in a shocking rebound disparity as the Lakers faded nightly. In first halves, the younger, fresher, deeper Pistons outrebounded them, 109-99, but in second halves, it was 120-89.

Before, opposing coaches drew up game plans for O'Neal first and Bryant second. That changed this spring, but Kobe had never run into the kind of buzz saw that awaited him with three Pistons tracking his every move, starting with the cat-quick, 6-foot-9 Tayshaun Prince.

Like Utah's Andrei Kirilenko, another tall, reedy defender, Prince threw off Bryant, who at 6-6 is used to being able to overpower his man. If Bryant beat Prince, he just ran into more Pistons. The only way to get to the hoop was to weave through them, and when Kobe tried, they often batted the ball away.

Before this, Bryant had never met a challenge he couldn't rise to. He had that rare Michael Jordan thing of being at his best in the biggest moment.

Unfortunately for the Lakers, this culminated in his Game 2 three-point basket that saved them but was never seen again ... and may never be, at least in purple and gold.

In a best-case Laker scenario, Bryant not only stays but tells the Lakers to bring Jackson back too, since the last thing they need, while trying to put the team back together, is to bring in a less qualified coach.

They have to beg Malone to stay. Diminished as he is, if he's healthy next fall -- the only way he'd consent to returning -- he's a positive force in all areas.

They have to beg Derek Fisher to stay, promising he'll start and giving him one of those meaningful looks that mean they'll take care of him in a year, if he doesn't opt out now. He should have been starting in the playoffs, but that would have meant completely writing off Gary Payton, who wouldn't have stood for it.

Payton has an option to return at $4.5 million. He should be told he'll back up Fisher, and if that's no good, to opt out and go somewhere else.

Unfortunately for the Lakers, this may not be in their hands. Sent to the bench a year ago, a hot property now at 29, Fisher has hired a new agent, fully intent on opting out and checking out his opportunities.

After that, the Lakers have a $5-million veterans' exception to spend, the problem being they need two players: a shooter and an athletic big man.

Seattle's Brent Barry could be the shooter. He's a three-point deadeye (45%, No. 2 in the league last season), who could play either guard position in the triangle. He lives here in the summer and has told friends he'd love to be a Laker.

The big man could be Stromile Swift, Adonal Foyle, Etan Thomas or Keon Clark. If one of them, like Clark, a known flake, slips through the cracks and becomes available for the $1-million veterans' exception, so much the better.

Without Bryant, forget the number. The Lakers have enough holes to fill with him.

Without him, they'll be hard-pressed to remain an elite team, which won't go down well with their fans, not at the ticket prices they charge.

The fans won't want to believe the dream is over, nor will management, so they'll have to find out the hard way. Nor will O'Neal deal well with criticism that awaits as he gets older and frustrations set in all around.

In any case, have a nice summer. Someone has to, because the Lakers won't, at least for a while.

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