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Saturday, May 17, 2003
A four-point plan for Lakers' recovery

By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com

And now, the recriminations, brought to you by the Fourth Estate.

There is already much tongue clucking and tsk-tsking of the Lakers, now that they've been vanquished. The Dynasty, one reads, is over. There is much blame being tossed about, most of it landing at the feet of Big Shaq and not-quite-as-big-but-still-very-tall-compared-to-normal-folk general manager Mitch Kupchak. The Lakers lost, the story goes, because a) Shaq was out of shape and waited too long for offseason surgery, costing the team 15 precious, could-have-secured-home-court games, and b) Kupchak is no Jerry West.

Personally, I go with c) The Spurs were the better team, and they knew it and they went out and proved it.

Pat Garrity
Pat Garrity can shoot better than 2-for-38 on 3s.
Aside from two dreadful fourth quarters in Games 4 and 5, San Antonio waxed the floor with L.A., pure and simple. The Spurs were better in the backcourt, better in the frontcourt and were better coached. No doubt Phil Jackson had other things on his mind lately, but that's no excuse. Give Gregg Popovich -- heretofore thought of as terribly unflexible, and not very patient -- credit for sticking with Tony Parker, not bailing on him after the kid point guard had a couple of very shaky games. Give Tim Duncan credit for being the baddest hooper on the planet when his team needed it the most. Give Bruce Bowen credit. I wrote two months ago that he had to hit those corner jumpers in the postseason, not just the regular season. And he did. Popovich told me during the preseason, sotto voce, that his team could beat the Lakers if it just got another chance. He was right.

And the reason the Spurs could beat the Lakers is the same reason the Lakers can get right back on top of things in the West next season: They didn't blow things up. They had a superstar and they improved the pieces around him. They didn't try and get another superstar.

The Lakers, last time I checked, still have two of the five best players in the league. They have to do even less retooling than San Antonio did.

The Spurs' main problem against L.A. the previous three years was next-to-no athletic ability. The Lakers were content to single-cover Duncan, give him 40 if he wanted, because of their supreme confidence that they could find all of San Antonio's slow-footed shooters in time. And they could. So guys that shot lights out in the regular season suddenly found hands in their faces, and their jumpers hit iron. So what did San Antonio do? They got speed on the wings in Stephen Jackson and Manu Ginobili. Now, Parker had guys that could run with him on the break, and the Spurs could initiate their offense with more than one guy handling the ball. They penetrated L.A.'s halfcourt defense at will. The Lakers never did really figure out how to guard Ginobili with their best defender, Rick Fox, out for the series.

There will certainly be changes: Robert Horry (team option), Mark Madsen, Samaki Walker, Brian Shaw and Tracy Murray are all free agents, not likely to return. But Shaquille O'Neal ($26.5 million next season), Kobe Bryant ($13.5), Fox ($4.7) and Devean George ($4.5) total $49.2 million by themselves next season, already putting the Lakers over the cap. So how can the Lakers improve without busting the limited acquisition budget of owner Jerry Buss?

Of course, they need a power forward who can guard people (more on that later), but they also need to get some pep in their step. Winning and defending their three titles has taken all of the starch out of the legs of their veteran role players. The Lakers have to find some smart, young role players -- who, most importantly, will embrace the triangle. That's why anyone who suggests L.A. goes after free agents like Lamar Odom or Corey Maggette is horribly mistaken. Those guys never met a shot they wouldn't force up.

And I think L.A. can do this without spending major league loot. Remember, most players in the L haven't won anything. Most players in the L have never lived in LaLa. The Lakers thus have a huge advantage over most teams with which they compete for free agents. With Shaq and Kobe as head recruiters, the Lakers should be able to get a player or two to sign for less than market value.

Here are a few suggestions, humbly submitted:

  • 1. Sign P.J. Brown with the mid-level exception. Yes, P is a little longer in the tooth than you might like, but he's not dead. He still knows how to guard people down low, which is the main thing you're asking him to do. He doesn't have to score -- but he can, from the top of the key, with a solid jumper. He will hit the glass and take some of the rebounding burden off of the Diesel. And he is the quintessential teammate, a quiet presence others in the locker room look up to. The Lakers will no longer be operating at a defensive deficit when they take the floor against the Webbers and Duncans in the West.

  • 2. See if Orlando would trade Pat Garrity for Derek Fisher. Not because Fish isn't still a very solid player, but because the Lakers desperately need perimeter shooting. They are unbeatable when the supporting cast fires away, but that support sagged noticeably this season. Horry was 2-of-38 from 3-point land in the postseason. Garrity has a pure stroke. With Grant Hill's career in jeopardy, the Magic need a point guard to supplement (or replace) Darrell Armstrong, and preferably one that can hit a jumper, like Fisher. With Gordan Giricek now on the scene in Orlando, the Magic could be a little more willing to move some perimeter firepower. (But this is a deal that would have to wait until late July, because Garrity is a base-year compensation player until then and will be next to impossible to move before then.)

  • 3. Try to sweet talk Antonio Daniels into taking a short deal. Phil loves big guards, and the 6-foot-4 Daniels fits the bill. He's athletic and he can score in transition. And he didn't back down from Kobe when he filled in for the injured Derek Anderson in San Antonio during the playoffs two years ago. This would take some intense lobbying; the Lakers don't even have their veterans' exception to use this year, having used it last year to re-sign Slava Medvedenko. So they'd have to somehow convince Daniels, making $3.375 million this season, to take a pay cut down to $813,000, the minimum for a player with six years of experience. Likely? No, but this is where O'Neal and Bryant come in, promising good times and a real shot at a ring.

  • 4. Re-sign Shaw. He likes Shaq, Shaq likes him.

    Those four moves wouldn't break the bank, and they'd give Shaq and Kobe much-needed assistance at both ends of the floor. Assuming Fox and George recover from their injuries, and that youngsters Kareem Rush, Medvedenko and Jannero Pargo continue to develop (or the Lakers could try to repatriate Tyronn Lue from Washington), L.A. would once again have a solid rotation of players to mold around their Big Two. (One other positive to adding those three new faces: All of them have extensive playoff experience.)

    Just a thought from a concerned guy who really, really wants to spend more time eating at Asia de Cuba in May and June.

    Wallace did plenty of good for Celtics
    Here's what Chris Wallace has to apologize for: rebuilding the Celtics after the Rick Pitino craziness, when they were as low as that storied franchise had sunk, creating a squad that has made the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time in a long time, having a superstar in Paul Pierce and a star in Antoine Walker, bringing crowds back to the FleetCenter and making his team a profitable, non-luxury tax payer.

    For that good work, the Cs' new owners rewarded him by ... demoting him, bringing in Danny Ainge as the new man in charge and giving Ainge a multi-million dollar contract.

    You can say that nothing is promised in this business, especially to a team that just got swept in the playoffs. Of course, the owners were obviously negotiating with Ainge before the Nets series, but that's just semantics -- or, as we call it in this business, "a fact." It might have also been nice for Wallace to hear that he may have a new boss from Steve Pagliuca, Ainge's longtime friend and one of the new owners, or one of the other owners, instead of Wallace getting a call from his wife at 5 in the morning in Europe, where he's been scouting for the last three weeks.

    Chris Wallace
    Chris Wallace is looking for a new job.
    I know. Semantics, again. Or, as we call it in my family, "incredibly tacky."

    "I think we've put this team back in action again," Wallace said by phone from Spain the other day. "We have excitement in the town again over the team. We're financially healthy and profitable team with considerable interest, and we're back to having a chance to do things. That wasn't always the case during the last 10 years."

    Given his choice, Wallace would like to stay and complete what he's started in Boston. But do you give Danny Ainge millions and not give him the keys to the car? So Wallace, understandably, has asked for permission to see what else is out there.

    "If I have to stay I would have no problem" working under Ainge, Wallace said. "But I think anybody ... well, I've never met an assistant coach that didn't want to be a head coach. I feel the same way about myself. But I've been in this thing 16 years for six teams ... I equate being in this business that you have to be a surfer. Sometimes you get on your board and the waves are nice, and sometimes you get wiped out."

    There's no doubt that Wallace has to answer for the Vin Baker trade last summer, an unmitigated disaster. I wrote last summer that the Celtics were taking an incredible gamble on a troubled (and very expensive) player who'd shown little signs of the player he'd been at the start of his career. In doing so, they also moved Kenny Anderson, who'd settled in nicely as the team's third option behind Pierce and Walker, and failed to re-sign Rodney Rogers, acquired from Phoenix with Tony Delk at the 2002 trading deadline for Joe Johnson, and who'd been a key player for Boston in the playoffs.

    Plus, how could the Celtics not know about Baker's off-court issues? And how could Wallace expect Baker to settle for a couple of token touches per game, while coach Jim O'Brien gave the green light to Pierce and Walker to fire away?

    "I took a gamble," Wallace says of the Baker deal. "I didn't win."

    Of course, there is a back story. Wallace never admitted it last summer, but everyone knew he was under orders from Paul Gaston, the Celtics' former owner, not only to stay under the luxury tax threshold, but to make sure Boston made as much money as possible. (You see, that makes a team more desirable for new owners.) That meant Wallace couldn't use any of the team's $4.5 million exception to re-sign Rogers, or anybody else, like a Keon Clark, for example, nor could he keep Anderson's $7 million on the payroll. The Celtics, like the Bucks, and the Magic, and the Sixers, and the Wizards, and the Warriors, were given permission to win this season ... as long as it didn't cost their owners tax dollars.

    "My whole thing was to keep the train rolling down the track and feed the monster after getting to Game 6," Wallace says. "It was very hard to tell your fans, your media, and most importantly, your two best players, we're not re-signing Rodney Rogers and we're not doing anything ... that trade was done because we needed to drop salary to start with and because of this tax. It was sort of an ownership mandate. You can (just) dump a guy like a Randy Brown and get a draft pick, but that's pretty hard to explain.

    "Phoenix did a deal that long term, we may get beat on, because Joe Johnson could go on and have a better career than the players we got back, but the two players we got back, Delk and Rogers, helped us as a basketball team and helped us with the tax. We were able to have some extra gas in our tank last year in the stretch run of the playoffs. These guys helped us to do that. No franchise needed to get on a run in the playoffs more than this franchise did. So we made a run.

    They can take a baseball bat out and beat me up about Vin Baker. But we're still playing -- we were still playing (in the playoffs).
    Chris Wallace

    "My gamble was that we would be able to keep Rodney. I lost it. I was not permitted to sign Rodney for more than the minimum. So now you have to do an alternative, and you have to do an alternative that stays in line with the salaries ... we made money (on the Baker trade). Basketball-wise, it was not a risk. There were no draft picks involved. It would have been nice to have Kenny Anderson ... but it was unclear whether he would stay with us (Anderson only had one year left on his deal). And the other two guys (Potapenko and Joseph Forte) didn't get off the bench for Seattle. Potapenko didn't play for us in the playoffs; he was coming off an ACL. So I defy anybody to show how basketball-wise we were hurt by it. And also, by doing it, a guy like (rookie point guard J.R.) Bremer got to play. Not only is he an up-and-comer but financially he's got a very reasonable contract, and we control it for a while."

    Alibis? Or facts? I report; you decide. (Copyright 2003, Really Conservative Media Corporation, Inc.)

    Although Wallace has only met a couple of the 19 folks who now have one piece or another of the Celtics, he likes their eagerness and their hands-on style. He rarely heard from the Gastons, who frequently had business out of town. And he is hopeful that giving Ainge all that loot is a sign that the purse strings are being loosened.

    Because of what Wallace did, the new guys have a team that's tax friendly (16th in the league in payroll, at around $54.9 million) and has the 15th and 20th picks in June's draft. Because of what O'Brien, Pierce and Walker did on the floor, the Celtics were seventh in attendance this season. Now, are the Celtics still a flawed bunch? J Kidd and K Mart certainly proved that this is not a finished product. But compared to where Boston was when Pitino left, I'd say they're in reasonably good shape.

    "They can take a baseball bat out and beat me up about Vin Baker," Wallace says. "But we're still playing -- we were still playing. We have two All-Stars ... we have two draft picks, and if we use the exception (this summer), we'll be in the $59 million range. That's still not going to put you in the top 10 (in salaries), and if not, we'll be around $53. I don't look at it -- it's not my money -- but I don't look at it as that dire ... if that's a failure, I don't know what you classify the rest of the league as. I'm not saying we're San Antonio or Los Angeles, but we're closer to the penthouse than the outhouse."

    Far be it from me to tell Paul Allen or Abe Pollin or Bob Johnson or David McDavid what to do with their teams, but if I had a management opening, I'd find out the area code to Malaga, and right quick.

    A familiar face
    We hear that ex-Sixers, Nets and Wizards GM John Nash might hook up with the Bulls to help out while John Paxson gets his GM sea legs, but that he might not, because Jerry Reinsdorf wants to look internally before OKing any more expenditures. Rumor too good not to pass along: that internal fellow might be one J. Krause, looking to stick around as a consultant.

    David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.