Karl Malone has not fully recovered from off-season knee surgery and is expected to sit out part of the exhibition season, possibly more, if he decides to come back for a 20th NBA season.
Malone, 41, a free-agent forward who played for the Lakers last season, is being courted by several teams. He had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee June 29, two weeks after the Lakers lost in the NBA Finals at Detroit. He has spent most of his time since recovering at his Arkansas ranch and has not met with any teams.
"He is working out and all signs are pointing to a 100% recovery, but that is still many months away," said Malone's agent, Dwight Manley. "There is no timetable."
In June, Malone's personal orthopedist, Ralph Venuto, found a small tear in the cartilage of Malone's knee and performed a procedure during which microscopic holes were drilled in the cartilage to promote blood flow and healing. Recovery times vary, but New Jersey Net guard Jason Kidd had the same surgery on his knee in July and is not expected back until December.
"Our understanding is that Karl's not 100% at this time," Laker spokesman John Black said. "We don't know when he will be."
Most teams, including the Lakers, begin training camp Oct. 4, but they would be willing to make room for Malone later. The Lakers begin the regular season Nov. 2 against Denver.
Despite Malone's injury-plagued season with the Lakers, several general managers believe he could be strong enough to boost an already talented team to the top.
Malone is coveted by such teams as the San Antonio Spurs, Minnesota Timberwolves and the up-and-coming Miami Heat, which would reunite him with former Laker Shaquille O'Neal. O'Neal has been urging Malone to join the Heat.
The Lakers could offer Malone $1.8 million next season, whereas the Spurs and Heat could offer the veterans' minimum of $1.1 million. The Timberwolves spent part of their mid-level exception money in re-signing guard Trenton Hassell, but they would be close to the Lakers' $1.8-million offer with their remaining mid-level exception money.
The Timberwolves are a perennial playoff contender whose franchise pillar, league most valuable player Kevin Garrett, has only been able to lift his team as far as the Western Conference finals. The Lakers have remained patient and will welcome Malone back if he decides to return. If he decides to retire, Brian Grant probably will start at power forward.
"We're going to respect the space that he needs to make a decision," General Manager Mitch Kupchak said of Malone, who averaged 13.2 points and 8.7 rebounds last season. "Certainly he's earned that type of respect, not only for what he did in Utah [in 18 seasons with the Jazz] but for what he did for us last year."
Malone and his family recently returned to their Newport Beach home and his children have started school, possible indicators that he intends to play for the Lakers or retire.
"We're not going to give a deadline," Kupchak said. "We're saving a spot for him."
* Oct. 5: Lakers open camp in San Diego, Clippers in Santa Barbara.
* Oct. 10: Preseason games begin.
* Nov. 2: Lakers open regular season at Staples Center vs. Denver.
* Nov. 3: Clippers open regular season at Staples Center vs. Seattle.
* Feb. 18-20: All-Star weekend.
* April 20: Regular season ends.