Los Angeles Lakers
At 40, a superstar begins a new adventure with an uncertain role
By Jack McCallum
Team Page | Conference ranking: 3 | Overall ranking: 3
Next to the legal puzzle that is Kobe Bryant, the most intriguing question surrounding the purple and gold is, Which of the team's four future Hall of Famers will sublimate his game for the good of the team?
The answer did not emerge during the preseason, because answers rarely do in exhibition games and because, at week's end, Bryant hadn't played in any. But Karl Malone has volunteered to give up his share of shots, "if it has to be me," he says. Should Malone, who needs to average 12.3 points over all 164 games the next two seasons to eclipse Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA's alltime leading scorer, severely cut down his attempts so that Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Gary Payton get theirs, he will be making a sacrifice he never made in Utah.
"I was in ankle-deep water for 18 years, never took a dangerous step, content as hell," says Malone, who accepted the veteran minimum (two years, $3 million), allowing the Lakers to also sign Payton. "But I looked, and there was a big bowl over there, water swirling. I don't know if I'm going in over my head, but I'm stepping in." Malone threw in another metaphor: "I look at this as going on a two-year mission, a championship mission. We do it all the time in Utah."
Coach Phil Jackson sees his main on-the-court challenges as getting Payton to make the Lakers a transition team and getting one of his two hulks to become what he calls his postlane sprinter -- i.e., the big man who joins the fast break. Considering that O'Neal reported to camp in shape for a change, that competition might be more interesting than it originally seemed. Says Malone, probably one of the world's fastest 40-year-olds, "It's Shaq's, Kobe's and Phil's team. But I know this: Everyone will know I'm here."
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Lakers
"At first glance Gary Payton and Karl Malone look out of place. They developed their games for certain spots on the floor, and the triangle offense puts them in locations where they aren't comfortable. As a result, you'll see them break from the triangle and freelance, such as when Payton goes to his trademark move of backing down smaller guards.... The running game will be better because that's where Payton and Malone will feel free to do what comes naturally. The defense will be improved because you'll have to settle for jump shots against them. With Shaquille O'Neal protecting the basket, Payton will be able to cheat off his man and play the passing lanes.... Payton can still play tight against all but the quickest guards because he's allowed to hold and grab -- the officials are intimidated by him. They know they'll get an earful from him if they call a foul, and he's such a big star that they won't eject him for mouthing off.... Malone can't move laterally anymore, but he still has the quickness and brute strength to prevent guys from getting position. He's better than anybody else in the league at knocking the ball out of their hands.... The Lakers' biggest worry could be their thin bench, though Payton [who averaged 40.1 minutes last year] and Malone [36.2] are as durable as they come. Together Payton and Malone have missed 17 games in 31 years.... Kobe Bryant is the wild card with his pending rape trial. Who knows how much he'll play? And when he does, he'll want to show that he's still the Man. But the leash is going to be tighter: What used to be a bad shot by Kobe now becomes a really bad shot because that's one less good shot for Malone, Payton or Shaq -- and you know they'll all be keeping track."
Issue date: October 27, 2003