PROBABILITY THAT KOBE STAYS: 20%
? Malone and Payton, the free-agent acquisitions who were supposed to turn the Lakers into—all together now—the best team ever assembled, each signed a two-year deal, with the second year at the player's option. Though he missed 40 games with a partially torn right MCL, the Mailman has been everything the Lakers hoped he would be: a reliable scorer, defender and rebounder who has accepted a diminished role; a locker room leader who relates to all the players, as well as to Jackson. Even when he and the coach have words, as they did at least twice in Game 2 (over a technical foul and a bad pass by the Mailman), Malone puts it behind him immediately.
Malone, who will turn 41 on July 24, is confronting his basketball mortality. The knee injury was a devastating psychological blow to a player who in 18 previous seasons had missed only 10 regular-season games. Being the fourth option on offense is one thing; being a limping afterthought is unacceptable to a man with Malone's pride. Still, he needs at least two more healthy seasons to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA's alltime leading scorer, and Malone concedes that he would like to set the record. And though it hasn't been the dream season he anticipated last summer—during his plane ride to L.A. for his introductory press conference, Malone shed tears of joy at the prospect of a championship—he says he'll play only if he's in a Lakers uniform.
PROBABILITY THAT MALONE STAYS: 80%
?After getting panfried for a total of 50 points in San Antonio by 21-year-old point guard Tony Parker, Payton was so frustrated that he spent 15 minutes after Game 2 venting to one of his agents, Eric Goodwin. Then last Saturday, before Game 3, he vented to the media about being, in his opinion, unfairly singled out for criticism. It is impossible to do justice to Payton's rant, delivered sarcastically and at high volume, but here are a couple of gems. First: "So, Gary Payton is playing five people, right? Put it on me. Go ahead. Gary Payton is down 2-0." And: "On defense we haven't been on the same page level."
Well, Payton hasn't been on the same page level with his coach and his teammates all season. Jackson's triangle offense was never to his liking, and his distaste for it, registered in pouts and frowns, increased during the postseason. His negative comments about L.A.'s defense had some merit, though, and Jackson adjusted on Sunday. The Lakers jammed the lane to cut off Parker's penetration and trapped on the pick-and-roll to force him to the sideline, holding him to eight points and five assists. Still, the fact remains that, two months from his 36th birthday, Payton has lost a step or two as a defender.
Who knows whether L.A. could find a team to take on the $5.4 million due Payton next season, or whether he will opt out and take less money to play elsewhere. But the Glove did not fit, and that you must admit.
PROBABILITY THAT PAYTON STAYS: 20%
?"This is a team with a nebulous future," Jackson said last week, his own future being as nebulous as any Laker's. Contract negotiations with Buss broke down months ago after Jackson declined one offer to extend his deal. People tend to say it's not about the money when it is about the money, and to some extent, this is about the money.
But both Jackson and team officials acknowledge that the coach made certain stipulations ( Jackson's word) that were not financial. When the Lakers would not meet his demands, the talks stopped. The best guess is that the 58-year-old Jackson doesn't want to be coaching Bryant any more than Bryant wants to be playing for Jackson. But neither side would confirm that.