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Friday, April 30, 2004
Updated: May 1, 10:52 PM ET
Payton's no match for Parker

By Frank Hughes
Special to ESPN.com

Earlier this week, I was reading a story out of Los Angeles about the frustration and struggles of Lakers point guard Gary Payton -- which to me seems redundant, but that is another story.

In any case, Payton, who has been benched in the fourth quarters of several games against the Houston Rockets, was quoted as saying about the Lakers' upcoming semifinals series with the San Antonio Spurs: "Hopefully I can shine in that series. I know I can play at another level. I can do a lot of things. It's not happening right now. Next series may be my series."

And I thought: Against Tony Parker? Good luck.

This is going to sound like an indictment of Payton, though it is not meant to be. Instead, it is a glowing tribute to the ever-improving Parker, who has become one of the top three point guards in the league and is on the verge of becoming the elite player at his position.

In order to do that, I must go back to Payton, who still fancies himself as one of the best players in the league, only because he is too stubborn to consider the reality.

But part of the reason that Lakers coach Phil Jackson has taken to having Payton sit alongside him is that Payton can no longer defend opposing point guards, at least none quicker than him, which rules out Mark Jackson but does not set aside Steve Francis.

Speaking of Francis, is he not the most frustrating player in the game right now? I hate to rip him, since he is an ex-Terrapin, but he is beginning to put "Fear the Turtle" to shame. More like "Spear the Turtle." Somebody needs to tell Franchise that before he goes ripping aside his jersey to presumably expose his enlarged heart, he needs to actually hit the game-winning shot, not the one that ties the game with time still left. I wonder why he didn't do anything when he chucked up that airball at the buzzer that led to overtime in Game 5, which the Lakers predictably won. After that 18-foot airball that missed by a foot -- which is the NBA playoffs equivalent of a smart bomb aimed at Baghdad taking out the Eiffel Tower -- maybe Franchise should have ripped aside the right side of his jersey, where he does not have a heart.

(While I'm on tangents here, let me openly wonder what's up with the playoff slogan "Win or Go Home." This isn't March Madness. Every round is a best-of-seven series. The Heat and Hornets will finish up their series in 3½ months. In the spirit of accuracy, shouldn't the slogan at least read "Win-Win-Win-Win or Go Home"?)

Anyway, the point here is that Payton could not even deal with Francis, so no way can he deal with the much quicker Parker, the player who, if coaches were voting for the All-Star team, would probably have been named the starter over Francis.

Two years ago, Parker was a rookie entering the first playoff series of his career. The Spurs faced the Sonics, whose point guard was none other than Payton. At the time, a lot was made of the matchup because it was assumed that the wily veteran was going to teach the wide-eyed youngster a thing or two about postseason basketball, thus evening out the mismatch of Tim Duncan on Vin Baker.

Instead Parker absolutely obliterated Payton. He slipped past him whenever he felt like it, going for 23 points in one game and giving just a snapshot of things to come.

Gary Payton and Tony Parker
The older Payton, left, simply can't keep up with the younger Parker.
Now, two years later, the two will be matched up again, and I predict that Payton will continue his bench time because there is no way his aging legs and aching back are going to keep up with Parker, who they should nickname "The French Connection" whenever he gets an assist.

There is one way to stop Parker: Put Kobe Bryant on him, and have Payton guard Bruce Bowen. More than likely, Jackson will just bench Payton and let Derek Fisher play.

It's funny that these two point guards, so diametrically opposed in their styles of play, are matching up again in a titanic series because they have an inseperable history.

In the summer before Parker's rookie season, he came to Seattle and wowed their brass enough that the Sonics got on the phone and offered Payton for Parker, with some other detritus thrown in to make it work.

Gregg Popovich, wary of Payton's mercurial personality, squelched the deal, proving that sometimes the best deals are the ones never done.

As it turns out, another best-deal-never-done scenario happened last summer when the Spurs went for Jason Kidd, and Popovich told Parker to like it or lump it.

In my mind, the failure of this deal also worked in the Spurs' favor.

With Popovich forever on his back, Parker has developed into a premier guard, and he could be the difference-maker in the upcoming series. His regular-season numbers aren't gaudy -- 14.7 points, 5.5 assists, which is 16th in the NBA -- but a great deal of that is because so much of the Spurs' offense is predicated on throwing the ball in to Duncan and letting him operate.

But watch Parker in this series. He does not look quick -- perhaps because he is so smooth -- but he can get around anybody on the floor. His jump shot is vastly improved, as is his decision-making. He is at times inconsistent, but to be fair, where is the line between being aggressive and deferring to Duncan? It's a difficult thing to balance.

Even better, the guy is only 21 years old, 15 years younger than Payton and 10 years Kidd's junior. He is healthy, he already has one championship and he is only going to get better.

Now, you tell me, who would you rather have?

Frank Hughes, who covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.