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Thursday, June 17, 2004
Kupchak: Kobe a keeper; Shaq expendable

Associated Press

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Lakers plan to decide soon whether Phil Jackson will be their coach next season, perhaps as early as Friday.

"The No. 1 priority for us right now is to resolve the coaching situation," general manager Mitch Kupchak said Thursday. "We would hope to have that addressed in a short period of time."

Speaking less than 48 hours after the Lakers were beaten by the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, Kupchak also said the team will do whatever it takes to keep Kobe Bryant, and trading Shaquille O'Neal is a possibility if the star center demands it.

Kupchak said he spoke with Jackson on Thursday, but only about the current season -- not about the coach's future. The GM said Lakers owner Jerry Buss will meet with Jackson "within the next several days."

Jackson's agent, Todd Musberger, said it was his understanding that Jackson and Buss will try to meet Friday. Musberger said he didn't know any other details about the meeting.

The 58-year-old Jackson is finishing the five-year, $30 million contract he signed with the Lakers in 1999. He coached the team to championships in his first three seasons, giving him nine to tie former Boston coach Red Auerbach for the most in NBA history.

In 14 seasons as a head coach, Jackson is 832-316 for a .725 winning percentage -- best in NBA history. His 175 playoff wins are the most ever and his .717 postseason winning percentage is also tops. His teams in Chicago and Los Angeles had a 9-0 record in the NBA Finals until this year.

Jackson was discussing a contract extension, but the Lakers ended talks in February until after the season.

"Phil has never said that he has no interest in coming back," Musberger, said from his Chicago office.

Jackson said following the Lakers' loss Tuesday night that there was "a pretty slim chance" he'll coach the team next season.

"No coach coaches forever," Kupchak said. "We're going to have to work in tandem with him and decide how to move forward. He's going to have his side and we're going to have our side of it. I would say he's been the best coach in the NBA over the last five years."

That being said, all indications are Jackson's future with the Lakers will be decided by the team -- not Jackson.

Several other changes are expected before next season. Only five of the 14 players on the current roster -- O'Neal, Devean George, Rick Fox, Kareem Rush and Brian Cook -- are under contract. The Lakers have club options on Luke Walton and Jamal Sampson.

Karl Malone, Horace Grant, Slava Medvedenko and Bryon Russell are free agents, with Malone becoming one Wednesday when he opted out of the contract that would have paid him $1.65 million.

Bryant, Gary Payton and Derek Fisher can opt out of their contracts, making them free agents.

Bryant has said he'll opt out, and Kupchak said that makes the best business sense since the Lakers could then sign him for seven years for over $140 million. That's one year longer than any other team could sign him and for substantially more money.

"I think we're going to keep Kobe," Kupchak said. "Part of that is based on conversations I've had with him. I've talked to his representatives. I think this is the place where he started his career and this is the place where he should end his career. I don't think any other city appreciates him as much as this one does."

Bryant faces a sexual assault charge in Colorado, with no trial date set. He could spend time in prison if convicted.

"We're willing to take that chance," Kupchak said.

Kupchak said the Lakers will offer Bryant the maximum contract allowable, and wouldn't make a sign-and-trade deal even if he plans to leave.

"Kobe is just going to have to just go, because we're not going to trade him," Kupchak said. "I don't anticipate that changing. We're going to do everything we can to keep him."

O'Neal said following the finals that he was going to "take care of me," and didn't elaborate.

O'Neal has made clear his desire for a contract extension, which hasn't happened. He has two seasons left on his contract -- for $27.7 million next year and $30.6 million the following year. He can opt out after next season.

"He can dominate this game for years to come," Kupchak said.

About possibly trading O'Neal, Kupchak said: "He has a lot to do with that as well. That would not be a good day in this club's history. We do plan to talk to him. Players do have that option (to demand a trade). We'll see what happens."

Kupchak said he expects Payton will exercise his $5.4 million option to play with the Lakers next season. Payton has until next Wednesday to decide, his agent, Aaron Goodwin, said Thursday.

Kupchak also said he hopes Malone will return.

Malone, who turns 41 next month, said he has to be completely healthy to play next season. He sustained a possible torn right knee ligament in Game 2 of the finals, which slowed him considerably in the next two games and caused him to sit out the finale.