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Jackson Has a Salary-Cap Problem

Among the coach's initial challenges is sorting out what he calls a 'glutted roster.'

June 15, 2005|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

Even while he was winning nine NBA titles, Phil Jackson's critics knocked him for taking over only teams already primed with the talent to win a championship.

Those naysayers can't make that claim now.

In his second tour coaching the Lakers, Jackson inherits a roster that only a month ago he called "unappealing, underachieving and salary-cap strapped."

On Tuesday, he backtracked, saying, "But I meant that from the standpoint ... that it's a glutted roster, not the people per se."

One way to break up that glut would be to unload players who could be in the final year of their contract. In today's NBA, such players are attractive trade bait for teams trying to rebuild under the salary cap. Several of them -- the Lakers could have as many as seven: Devean George, Chucky Atkins, Slava Medvedenko, Jumaine Jones, Caron Butler, Brian Cook and Vlade Divac -- could be packaged in a deal for a higher-profile player.

As it is, getting more production from the Lakers' current core of players will be essential for the Laker coach.

That's because, barring trades, the team has a roster loaded with small forwards.

Last season, the team was nearly $20 million over the salary cap and still finished behind the Clippers and below .500.

Next season, things do not look any brighter. The Lakers are again expected to be well over the cap with 11 players under contract, highlighted by the salaries of Kobe Bryant ($15,946,875), Brian Grant ($14,336,220) and Lamar Odom ($11,448,596).

The free agents or restricted free agents on the roster are Divac, Luke Walton, Tierre Brown and Tony Bobbitt. If the Lakers pick up Divac's 2005-06 option, it would cost them $5.4 million.

"The salary cap is a challenge for everybody," General Manager Mitch Kupchak said. "But even if you're over the salary cap, there are ways to improve your team."

He added, "I don't anticipate a high turnover, but anything is possible. We do have to work on balancing our roster a little bit, and that may mean that a couple of guys who play small forward now can play guard."

For Jackson, whose first call after he accepted the job was to veteran assistant and triangle offense guru Tex Winter, not having a stacked team is part of the challenge. He said that it's going to take time before the Lakers compete for the NBA title again.

"I would be most amazed if at the end of the third year we had an opportunity to do that," said Jackson, who led the Lakers to a 287-123 regular-season record and was 64-28 in the postseason, including three NBA titles.

"I'm not the panacea for this basketball club. It's going to take plenty of hard work and dedication over the course of the summer to change the face of this team."

One certainty is that the Lakers will look much different than they did when Jackson had center Shaquille O'Neal dominating the middle.

With O'Neal in Miami and not expected to opt out of his contract to return to the Lakers, Jackson will build a team around Bryant more in the mold of his former Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. They will play a more up-tempo style on offense and emphasize defense.

Jackson said Bryant knows how to play in the triangle offense and in their conversation "we talked about personnel and what type of jobs people can do."

Jackson added that the Lakers will have "the ability to be flexible ... and being more mobile as a basketball team is in our favor. Look at some of the things that have changed in the game over the years. This team gives us more flexibility."

The player who intrigues Jackson the most is Odom, a versatile 6-foot-10 forward who has impressed with his playmaking abilities. He sees Odom playing a Scottie Pippen-type role with the Lakers.

"He was probably the best player on the floor delivering the ball and running plays," Jackson said. "But I'm not expecting him to step right into that role.... It could be a real growth year for him."

With the NBA draft coming soon, Kupchak said finding the right type of players to improve the Lakers will be his job and Jackson's.

"We'll continue to have the same working relationship that we had before," Kupchak said.

The Lakers have the 10th pick overall and were recently thought to be leaning toward selecting a point guard, with North Carolina's Raymond Felton often mentioned. But with Jackson now in the picture, the 6-foot Felton is probably out. In his NBA coaching career, Jackson has always preferred long, lanky athletes with multiple skills.

Felton is a good passer and shot 44% from three-point range last season, but he's limited in height and reach.

More likely, the Lakers will go big, and perhaps even trade up for a player, such as 6-3 Illinois guard Deron Williams, who is projected as a top-five pick; Gerald Green, a 6-8 shooting forward from Gulf Shores Academy in Texas, or Danny Granger, a 6-8 forward from New Mexico who has been compared to Pippen and who impressed scouts at last week's pre-draft camp in Chicago.

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