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Tuesday, July 8, 2003
Getting early read on how West will react

By David Aldridge
Special to

The first domino has fallen. It could be the most important of all.

Assuming the Miami Heat don't do something in the next seven days to change Gary Payton's mind -- it is possible that the Hots could offer Payton substantially more than the approximately $40 million they have on the table now, conceivably up to $82 million or so over six years -- Payton's decision to go to the Lakers next season shakes up the West seismically. The ripple effects are already in the water.

For one, does this push Alonzo Mourning to the Mavericks? Mourning wants to stay in the Yam, but he also desperately wanted to play with Payton, who wanted to play with him. With Jermaine O'Neal an apparent certainty to return to Indiana, the Heat really don't have a big-name carrot to entice Mourning to re-sign -- and even if they did, they may not have the loot to make a difference.

Gary Payton and Jason Kidd
The choice of Payton, left, may affect Jason Kidd's final decision.
For two, does that affect what Gilbert Arenas does? The Heat are now players for the free-agent guard after he listened to, but apparently turned down, a major-league offer from the Nuggets. But if Mourning takes a powder out of town, is playing in Miami with Vlad Stepania as appealing? Does Arenas make a beeline back to Denver -- or is it too late, now that the Nuggets (and Jazz) are entertaining Andre Miller and his agent this week?

For three, what does Karl Malone do? Now that he knows that Payton is going to LaLa, he can compare "apples to apples," as a source close to him says. He is weighing the Lakers' $1.5 million against the Kings' and Mavericks' mid-level exceptions, as well as significant cash from the Spurs. But what he doesn't know about the 'Toine is whether Jason Kidd is aboard. The other three contenders are, more or less, set. In Los Angeles, he plays next to Shaq and Kobe and GP; in Sacramento, Chris Webber and Peja; in Dallas, Dirk Diggler, Fin, Nasty Nash and Van Excellent. They're all premier-level folk.

Only one is 7-foot-1, 340, and ticked off.

For four, does this make Kidd's decision harder -- or easier? With Payton back in the West and Mourning a strong possibility to follow, the balance of power is now more definitively out yonder than ever. If Kidd truly wants to win a title, does he have any choice now but to leave New Jersey and hook up with the Spurs -- and try to convince another big-timer to come with him?

For five, what does this do to the teams out West trying to keep up, like Minnesota and Houston? The Wolves have been more aggressive this offseason than in the past four or five combined; sources indicate that Minny, looking hard to move the injured Terrell Brandon, have chatted with the Pacers about a two-for-one deal. But Minnesota wants one of the incoming two to be Al Harrington, and Indiana -- which could take Brandon's $11.15 million off its cap after next season, and thus both stay under the luxury tax and also be able to also re-sign Brad and Reggie Miller -- has no desire to part with Harrington.

For six, does GP's decision take some of the PR heat off of Kobe? We literally do not know what supposedly happened in that resort on June 30, but we know that something happened bad enough for police to issue an arrest warrant. It may well turn out to be that a liar, or a golddigger, or a star-struck young girl is behind this, but if there's more to this than we know now, it could also be devastating for Bryant -- and by extension, a league that has tied a lot of its promotions and ratings hopes to the Forum Blue and Gold.

All because Payton decided to follow his dream. (And leave the Bucks, who now have only Desmond Mason to show for moving Ray Allen. Well, that and $14 million, which is what's most important to Milwaukee's management, anyway.)

The ball is now in the rest of the West's court.

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