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Monday, June 28, 2004
Lakers need Kobe's commitment first

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

To that annoying list of obstacles preventing the Los Angeles Lakers from dealing Shaquille O'Neal and giving us all a summertime jolt, you might have to add one more.

Then again, you might not.

You already know of Shaq's monster salary and his desire for an equally rich contract extension. You also know that the Lakers can't get equal value in a trade because there's only one Shaq out there.

Now consider the latest impediment: Kobe Bryant hasn't told the Lakers that he's definitely re-signing with them.

Until it gets Kobe's signature, or at least a bankable promise from No. 8, L.A. is unlikely to consent to a Shaq trade.

Yet here's where it gets tricky. As soon as Kobe commits, he loses his leverage. The deeper into summer he waits, the longer Bryant enjoys his newfound status as the Lakers' assistant GM, with input on the roster and the new coach.

Suppose Kobe tells the Lakers to trade Shaq first if they want that signature. The Lakers, then, could be forced to do exactly what they don't want to do, risky as it sounds.

  • Yet another potential impediment (or not): Dallas and Sacramento, at this point, are the only two teams in circulation that can realistically combine with the Lakers on a Shaq trade.

    Which means, yet again, that the Lakers could be forced to do the unthinkable and work with the last two teams they'd want to help -- two of the Bottom Four, anyway, along with Jerry West's Memphis Grizzlies and the hated San Antonio Spurs.

    The Mavs and Kings, you see, are the only teams that can satisfy the three requirements needed to make the fantasy of an O'Neal deal reality.

    1. The Lakers have to get enough talent back to maintain their elite status, so Kobe is convinced to re-sign.

    2. The team that gets Shaq has to have enough leftover talent to convince him not to opt out after next season and leave in free agency.

    3. The team that gets Shaq also has to have a willingness to meet his demands for a contract extension.

    Be advised that New York and Portland can only satisfy No. 3, and Indiana can only meet No. 1 ... and that's only if the Pacers were willing to move Jermaine O'Neal, which they're not.

  • We can hear you asking from here: Why do the Lakers have to listen to Shaq's trade demand?

    They don't have to, sure, but keeping Shaq is risky on multiple fronts, even if Bryant does re-sign.

    There are already fears in L.A. that O'Neal, without Phil Jackson around to referee his tug-of-war with Bryant, will be miserable ... and apt to sit out chunks of the regular season. Of greater concern: O'Neal and Bryant on the same roster would leave L.A. with no financial flexibility to change the team that was just made to look old and thin by Detroit in the NBA Finals.

    If Karl Malone returns, he'll undoubtedly want part or all of the Lakers' $5 million mid-level exception. That would essentially leave the Lakers with only minimum-salary slots to bring in new blood, with Gary Payton (at $5.5 million) ranking as the closest thing to a trade asset.

    So ...

    The Lakers have to ask themselves if they want to make drastic changes ... or no changes.

    It's a question they have to ask, furthermore, knowing that Minnesota, San Antonio and Sacramento all stand to be stronger next season without needing any significant tweaks, simply by maturing as a group or getting healthy. The Lakers also know that the East has at least one serious threat, with Indiana making moves to keep pace with Detroit.

  • Dallas remains the front-runner to wind up with Shaq because that's where Shaq wants most to go. The Mavs, though, realize that they'll have to come up with a quality big man to send to L.A. if they hold firm on their position that Dirk Nowitzki is off limits, so you can count on Mark Cuban to keep trying to enlist Golden State as a third-team conduit in July to route Erick Dampier to the Lakers via sign-and-trade.

    At a charity event over the weekend, amid skepticism around the league that Nowitzki is really off limits, Dallas' loquacious owner reiterated his stance in the strongest terms yet.

    Said Cuban: "I will promise you 'til the cows come home, on any amount of money, with anything that you will bet, and any way you want to say it ... in any language, Dirk's going to be a Maverick (next season)."

  • One source close to Bryant claims that No. 8 has no interest in playing alongside Nowitzki anyway.

    Steve Nash, by contrast, continues to say that his first choice in free agency is playing wherever Nowitzki is.

    Checking in from Europe, where he watched Wimbledon with Nowitzki and also spent time at Euro 2004 in Portugal, Nash reiterated that his goal is spending "the rest of my career playing with Dirk."

    Nash is nonetheless ready to talk with interested suitors starting Thursday, including the team that drafted him (Phoenix) and Denver GM Kiki Vandeweghe, who grew close with Nash and Nowitzki as a Mavericks assistant coach. Utah is another possibility, with the Jazz still looking for a long-term John Stockton replacement, but Phoenix is considered the most likely of the three clubs to make a more lucrative offer to Nash than the Mavericks.

    The Mavericks could also try to incorporate Nash into O'Neal talks, but Nash would have to be willing to go to the Lakers or a third team in a sign-and-trade scenario.

    Not likely, unless Nowitzki were headed to the Lakers with him.

  • No surprise why Washington was so interested in acquiring Antawn Jamison from the Mavericks. The Wizards' frontcourt players combined to average just 27.6 points per game last season, lowest in the league.

    Golden State insiders, meanwhile, are downplaying the notion that Jamison and Gilbert Arenas had serious problems co-existing as Warriors. Dampier clashed with Jamison and Arenas far more than they squabbled, and Jamison was among those in Oakland trying to convince Arenas not to leave for D.C.

  • Fans and a new coach aren't the only things missing in Atlanta. The Hawks' drought in search of a future All-Star in the draft has reached a league-high 20 years, since the selection of Kevin Willis at No. 11 in 1984.

    And Isiah Thomas has some depressing history to overcome in New York. Only four of the 17 players drafted by the Knicks since 1995 have appeared in a game for them: John Wallace, Walter McCarty, Lavor Postell and Mike Sweetney. Those four players have combined to make seven starts, six by Wallace and one for Sweetney.

  • As you undoubtedly suspected, these are happy days at Stein Line HQ. But not merely because Cal State Fullerton won its fourth College World Series on Sunday.

    Frankly, I expect the Titans to win the CWS (or at least get to Omaha) every year. Sweeping Augie Garrido's Texas Longhorns was merely the capper to a fine week in which Pape Sow was drafted No. 47 overall by Miami and then dealt to Toronto.

    Pape is the first Titan draftee since Cedric Ceballos in 1990. Even better: Mike Tirico pointed out that out during Thursday's draft broadcast on ESPN, and I didn't even have to bribe him.

    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.