Saturday, June 19, 2004
Updated: June 21, 1:05 AM ET
Where will the Lakers' freaky Friday lead?
By Marc Stein
When the Lakers deliver news, it often comes in thunderbolts.
Magic Johnson stunning the world with his HIV announcement in 1991. Jerry West acquiring Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant within weeks of each other back in '96. Gary Payton and Karl Malone sitting side-by-side for an introductory press conference at Staples Center last July, and Bryant responding to rape charges at his own press conference the next day.
It happened again Friday. The Lakers happened again.
Phil Jackson and owner Jerry Buss parted company ... and Bryant formally opted out of his contract to become a free agent ... and O'Neal trumped both news bulletins by demanding to be traded.
For a glimpse of what happens next, after the freakiest Friday in memory, here's a Q&A to get you started.
Does the shake-up guarantee Kobe will stay?
Without question, the Lakers' chances of retaining Bryant have been enhanced considerably.
Question is, at what cost?
Legitimately worried that Bryant would leave the Lakers for the Clippers in free agency, Buss is attempting to appease Kobe's every wish -- starting with a new coach and, therefore, and a new offense. Publicly stating in mid-season his intentions to build around Bryant and then cutting ties with Jackson three days after the season ended were persuasive first steps.
With reservations about giving O'Neal big money again at 32, and believing that Bryant has the best long-term future of the Lakers' four future Hall of Famers (and Jackson) -- assuming Kobe is saved from his legal troubles in Colorado -- Buss is determined to hang onto his most popular employee. Just as Philadelphia doubts it can afford to trade Allen Iverson, even if it makes basketball sense, because of the money Iverson generates as a crowd-pleaser, L.A.'s boss will do anything to avoid losing Bryant.
That said, if Jackson and O'Neal are both exiled by the time next season starts, Bryant is going to have to live up to all those Michael Jordan comparisons to avoid the blame and shame Buss is already getting for breaking up a dynasty.
Is Shaq really going to be traded?
Team sources told ESPN.com that Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak will indeed attempt to honor O'Neal's request for a trade. Shaq has been convinced for months that the Lakers were planning to explore trading him anyway.
The reason? Shaq and Kobe consume so much of the salary cap by themselves that L.A. doesn't have the flexibility to pump the roster with the youth it so badly needs after back-to-back playoff eliminations. Buss has already made his preference for Kobe over Shaq quite clear. Re-signing Bryant to play for another coach and then trading Shaq could give the Lakers a new look.
Although it's believed the Lakers' first choice is keeping together the two most feared names in the game, this wasn't some negotiating-ploy trade demand. This is the real thing. Without his beloved coach and unable to get the contract extension he seeks, Shaq is fuming. He really wants out and Buss wants to see what he can get for him.
What are some trade possibilities, then?
The Lakers would naturally prefer to deal Shaq to an Eastern Conference club, but Shaq's favorite team out there -- Orlando -- doesn't have the pieces necessary to entice the Lakers, even with the No. 1 overall pick coming in next week's draft. Tracy McGrady is the most attractive commodity Orlando can pitch, but a McGrady-Kobe partnership doesn't exactly sound workable. If Shaq wants to go back to the team he walked out on in the summer of 1996, at least one more team would have to be involved in the deal, presumably to take McGrady while sending quality youth on to L.A.
The irony here is that the Lakers have to look at ensemble teams in the Detroit mold if they're serious about moving Shaq. They need three or four quality players in return, and not simply because it will take that many contracts to match Shaq's nearly $28 million salary next season. The Lakers' roster is that thin. Even if Bryant stays, he's going to need a clutch of new teammates to keep the Lakers among the elite.
Since Detroit won't be in a rush to break up a championship squad with ring-winning chemistry, expect to hear Indiana mentioned as a possible destination, given the Pacers' abundance of blossoming talent. It seems far more likely, though, that Indiana would try to acquire McGrady to pair him with Jermaine O'Neal as opposed to jumping into the Shaq Sweepstakes.
Thus you can also expect a few West clubs to make pitches, ignoring the Lakers' preference for sending Shaq across the conference divide -- starting with Dallas owner Mark Cuban, who would likely trade anyone on his roster outside of Dirk Nowitzki. Memphis' Jerry West will be interested as well, given his history with O'Neal and a roster filled with precisely the sort of up-and-comers that would intrigue Kupchak. Phoenix is another interesting possibility; Kupchak figures to go after the same twosome -- Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion -- Orlando has sought in McGrady talks.
Who replaces Phil Jackson?
Byron Scott and Doc Rivers would have been candidates had they elected to wait and see how the Lakers' roller-coaster season played out. But neither felt he could afford to wait when lucrative job offers presented themselves early, Boston for Rivers and New Orleans for Scott.
Rudy Tomjanovich makes sense on multiple fronts, as a coach beloved by almost everyone who has ever played for him and as one of only six coaches since 1987 to win the championship. The others in that exclusive club: Jackson, Chuck Daly, Gregg Popovich, Pat Riley and, as of Tuesday night, Larry Brown.
Tomjanovich, though, said earlier in the season that he wanted to sit out at least one more season as he continues his recovery from bladder cancer. It remains to be seen if the chance to land one of the most prestigious coaching jobs in sports will prompt Rudy Tee to alter that timetable. Of course, if Tomjanovich is the Lakers' choice, it's believed he'll try whatever he can do to keep Shaq and Kobe together.
One of the more interesting in-house possibilities to be suggested in recent days is Brian Shaw. Although Shaw lacks coaching experience, he does have the respect of every prominent Laker, from Bryant to O'Neal to Gary Payton. Bryant's and Payton's shared aversion to the triangle offense figures to hurt the chances of longtime Jackson assistant Jim Cleamons, and residue from Kurt Rambis' first stint as Lakers coach won't help his campaign.
Will we see Phil coaching again in the NBA?
Everyone close to Jackson thinks so -- at least after he takes a year off to recharge. Should Shaq really be dealt, count on the big man lobbying his new employer to bring Phil in at the first opportunity.
Jackson has always wanted to coach the Knicks, but it's difficult to envision Isiah Thomas -- who has his own coaching aspirations -- making room on the Madison Square Garden marquee for a name as big as the Zen master's. Yet there will be no shortage of opportunities for Jackson when he wants to unretire -- and, again, expect the Mavericks' Cuban to head the list of suitors.
What does all this mean for Payton and Malone?
Payton's agent, Aaron Goodwin, told ESPN's David Aldridge that Jackson's departure makes the Glove's return next season more likely. Payton has until Wednesday to exercise a player option for nearly $5.5 million, amid questions of whether he'll be able to command that much money anywhere else.
It's not yet known how Malone will respond to Phil's departure, although it is well known that Mailman enjoyed his time with Jackson. Malone also relished his standing as the rare Laker to be considered a confidante to both Kobe and Shaq. On top of his health concerns, all this tension could be another factor that drives Malone to retirement.
Will Kobe and Shaq regret breaking up if a split happens?
No question. If this potentially dynastic duo is disassembled, it could be forever before we see the league's two best players on the same team.
Then the real question, down the line, would be: Who will regret it more?
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.