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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Buying stock in Shaq & Co.

Go ahead. Bury them. The Lakers bicker too much. Someone is hurt all the time. The coach's future is uncertain, and Kobe's wandering eye could lead him astray from the Lakers, and we don't mean toward a creaky cot at the Colorado Department of Corrections.

You have every right to declare that Showtime is cooked . . . But you're wrong.

"Funny, isn't it?" said Shaquille O'Neal, shortly before tapoff against the Celtics last night. "The Spurs, who have the same record as us, are a great team, and we're [expletive]."

Place your bets on San Antonio, if you want. Take a deep breath and leap into the arms of those lovable Sacramento Kings, or those cuddly (cuddly? With Latrell Sprewell aboard? Is it possible?) Minnesota Timberwolves. I'll take the Lakers, and take my chances.

Sure, they've been disjointed, and dysfunctional, and, at times, utterly preposterous. If you are a Shaq fan (which I am), you're disappointed he hasn't been more responsible this season. There have been too many unexcused absences, and too many comments undermining both coach Phil Jackson and general manager Mitch Kupchak. Shaq admitted last night it has been a trying year, but he sees daylight, because he's looking at a nucleus that includes two guys who have weathered this before -- himself and Kobe Bryant -- and two other guys -- Karl Malone and Gary Payton -- who yearn for a ring so badly, they've given up money and points and prestige to fulfill their dreams.

The crux of the Lakers' problems is that the Fab Four have only played 21 games together this season. Malone has been out since Dec. 23 with a sprained right knee. Kobe has battled shoulder problems, although he was a surprise starter in last night's 117-109 win over the Celtics. Shaq missed 14 games with a strained calf. Add Jackson's contract status, Kobe's legal woes, and a healthy dose of internal strife, and it's easy to see why "Beat LA" has a legitimate ring to it.

"Someone asked me if I knew everything that has been happening this year ahead of time, and I could go back and start free agency all over again, would I do anything different?" Malone said. "Hell, no. I'd walk right back into this.

"We were something like 18-3 or 20-5 before I got hurt. It was the easiest time I ever had playing basketball.

"This is my own perception, but things will be a lot different when I get back. We'll take the last 15-18 games, use 5 or 6 of them as almost like a preseason schedule, then start humming. That's how I look at it."

Not all of LA's problems are as simply diagnosed as Malone's knee, or Bryant's shoulder. There is a certain restlessness about this group that is unmistakable. Sustaining excellence remains one of the most formidable challenges in sport, particularly with the collection of egos that Jackson must satisfy (include his own sense of worth while you're at it).

Here's the unvarnished truth: If the Lakers don't win the NBA championship, there will be changes. Jackson may move on. Kobe will test the free agent market, and could decide to carve his own niche away from the Big Fella, whose long shadow has been more imposing in the locker room than on the floor.

Win it all, or face the consequences.

"We're fully aware of all that," Shaq said. "If we don't win a title, things can change. But when things change, it brings about new options. Kobe's deal is up at the end of this year. My deal is up at the end of next year. This is an important time for the Lakers. Mitch Kupchak has to step up."

He's not the only one, Shaq. Although Malone hopes to return by the end of the week, it will take time for him to reacclimate himself to a team he barely knows. If the Lakers really want another ring, the Fab Four must join hands and play it Bill Belichick's way: together, without any entitlement in tow.

"People have written us off, but after all we've been through, we're still in the mix," Malone said. "We might have to start off [in the postseason] on the road, but do you think a team will want to start off against us?"

Horace Grant has won championships with Michael and Scottie in Chicago, and Shaq and Kobe in Los Angeles. This is his second tour of duty with Jackson and the Lakers, and he's seen it all before.

"My first time here, we didn't get going until April," Grant said. "We lost to New York on April Fools' Day, and then we just blew the doors off of everyone else the rest of the way.

"Look. We wouldn't be the Lakers without a little controversy. We'd be a totally boring team if nothing was going on.

"But that doesn't change the fact that on paper, we're the most talented team in the league, maybe the most talented team ever put together."

Grant dismisses the friction between LA's two superstars, much in the way he endured the ups and downs of Jordan and Pippen. The significant difference is Jordan was unquestionably the dominant person, both as a player and a personality. It's a split vote when it comes to Kobe and Shaq.

"I still haven't found a guy who is able to will his teams to wins like Michael did," Grant acknowledged. "But I'd say Kobe is the next best thing to M.J. I've seen him put on shows that are unbelievable. I've seen him make plays on both ends of the floor that leave you with your mouth hanging. If Michael Jordan is No. 1, then Kobe is 1A."

So where, exactly, does that leave Shaq?

"Oh, that's a whole different thing," Grant explains. "Shaq controls the game. There's no stopping him. It's his personality that sets him apart. He loves to play the game, but he enjoys life, too.

"Sometimes I see him dive for balls he knows are going out of bounds. But he does it because he likes to dive over seats, and high five the fans, and become involved. He likes having fun."

Kobe is many things, but fun is not the first that comes to mind. He has been criticized by his teammates for being too introverted and too detached.

"When it comes to basketball, Kobe is totally serious," Grant said. "You can't ask him to be something he isn't. It would take away from who he is.

"It would be like asking Gary [Payton] to be quiet. You can't possibly ask him to do that."

Payton is known for talking a good game, then backing it up. He said last night anyone who counts out the Lakers are "fools."

Not me. I'm in.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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