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Wednesday, June 16, 2004
L.A.'s triangle may take different shape

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Phil Jackson doesn't refer to himself as the Zen Master. Nor does he like Zenmeister, as ESPN.com prefers. Jackson simply calls himself "a contrarian."

You were reminded of this late Tuesday night when Jackson, after seeing his Los Angeles Lakers thoroughly pounded out of the NBA Finals, trotted out an unlikely summation of the season.

"It was a Cinderella story, actually, that this team had," Jackson said.

No joke. He really was referring to the Lakers, not the Pistons, and getting drummed by Detroit in the first five-game sweep in Finals history wasn't going to budge that opinion.

Phil Jackson
"It's a pretty slim chance that I'll be back," Jackson said after the decisive Game 5 loss.

To non-contrarians, of course, L.A.'s roller-coaster ride was no fairy tale. It was a circus season right up to the finish, when Karl Malone walked onto the floor in midnight blue pajamas instead of his uniform, forced to sit out what might be the final game of his career with an injured right knee.

And the Lakers, hoping to claim the first of three straight victories, fell behind by 28 points without him.

And Jackson, smiling when you expected sadness, went on to announce that there's "a pretty slim chance that I'll be back coaching next year."

If Jackson sticks to that, we've seen the last of a triangle that was good for three championships to tip off this century.

Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and their contrarian coach.

"They were hoping I could win the 10th (championship ring) and retire," Jackson said, referring to the four children who joined him on the postgame podium in what certainly looked like a farewell news conference, at least for him.

"But maybe losing this one," Jackson continued, "is enough for me to say that it's time to give it up."

That will have to be enough, for now, for those of you who clicked here hoping for a definitive breakdown of what happens next with these Cinderella Lakers. Stronger hints than Jackson's were not forthcoming.

Malone says he'll have to be 100 percent physically by training camp to even consider returning, and that could require surgery.

The unhappy Gary Payton, meanwhile, isn't as much of a lock to opt for free agency as it would seem, since Payton will earn $5.5 million next season if he stays in L.A. After his playoff nightmare, you have to wonder whether Payton could get that kind of contract elsewhere.

Of course, mostly you have to wonder about Bryant's intentions, which become even more uncertain now that the Lakers have ended two straight seasons without a championship.

Bryant, in these circumstances, could be more inclined to bolt for the Clippers than he has ever been.

Or ...

Jackson's resignation leanings could prompt Bryant, who wouldn't mind a new boss, to recommit to the Lakers, although Shaq has made it clear that he'll be angry if we later learn that Jackson was forced out.

"I don't know," Bryant said. "Right now, I can't really answer that question because I don't know."

What we do know: Bryant's closest teammates are going to try to convince him of the obvious.

That he'll eventually regret leaving the Lakers and leaving Shaq.

"As a friend, I've been a part of both of their lives for seven years," said Lakers swingman Rick Fox. "The only advice I would give them is that, to me, they've been through the hardest part. They've won together, they've lost together, they've been frustrated with each other and they've expressed that publicly. It's gone to the levels that no one would have thought we'd be discussing publicly for as many years as we have. But, honestly, if you can get through all that, you don't want to start over and try to build a relationship with another superstar and find yourself having to work through all those issues again. They've already gone through the hardest part."

What I'll do, me and Kobe will spend some time, and I'll talk to him. But I'll only say (stay with Shaq) if he says, 'Man, what do you think?' Then I'll say something.
Karl Malone
Said Malone: "You can't get caught up in the moment. You've got to give it some time, because it's a terrible feeling right now. But every guy has got to make their own decision.

"What I'll do, me and Kobe will spend some time, and I'll talk to him. But I'll only say (stay with Shaq) if he says, 'Man, what do you think?' Then I'll say something."

Until then, we are left with the image of Malone sitting patiently at his locker, ringless yet again but answering every question that comes.

Turns out that Jackson isn't the Lakers' lone contrarian. Malone would not allow himself to pout about his third Finals defeat or his uncooperative knee or the many uncertain futures around him.

"I take it in stride," Malone said. "This is not the worst thing that's happened to me."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.