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ON BASKETBALL

Lakers are a lock -- for turmoil

Among the many questions posed to David Stern over the summer, according to the NBA commissioner, was the following: "Should we just mail the trophy to LA or not with Gary Payton and Karl Malone?" Or not. Or, shall we say, not yet.

The Los Angeles Lakers still have to go through the formality of playing 82 regular-season games, the first of which is tonight in the Staples Center against the Dallas Mavericks. The games, it appears, are going to be the easy part.

Once again, coach Phil Jackson is going to be tested, pushed, and maybe even exhausted trying to get his two main players in synch, no easy feat. The addition of Payton and Malone in the offseason supposedly rendered the Lakers the de facto NBA champions. But the excitement, buzz, and expectations brought on by those signings have disappeared.

As if Kobe Bryant's impending rape trial wasn't enough to distract the Lakers, now we have Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal openly feuding again. Forty-eight hours before the opening toss, Shaq basically told Kobe to opt out of his contract at the end of the season (which Bryant plans to do) if he can't come to grips with what Shaq insists is a no-brainer: "This is the Diesel's ship."

Just what you want on the eve of the opener. As Los Angeles Times basketball columnist Mark Heisler noted yesterday, "Thanks for the memories, Lakers."

Actually, the Lakers have been an ongoing soap opera since camp opened. "This is probably one of the most disjointed training camps I've ever been a part of," said Jackson. Bryant was late reporting and wasn't in shape. Shaq had minor injuries. Rick Fox is out. Payton, Malone, and Horace Grant are among several newcomers.

The Bryant sexual assault case overshadowed everything. O'Neal got hurt and then, he said, felt hurt because the Lakers wouldn't give him yet another contract extension. Payton and Malone must have felt they walked onto the set of "Days of Our Lives." Then O'Neal and Bryant went Jerry Springer on Sunday.

O'Neal tossed the first verbal Molotov cocktail, suggesting that Bryant needed to change his game, rely more on others, until his conditioning was better. Bryant, who had shoulder and knee surgery over the summer, shot back that O'Neal should worry about his own game. Then came the deluge.

Shaq: "He doesn't need advice on how to play his position, but he needs advice on how to play team ball. As we start this new season, [things] have to be done right. If you don't like it, you can opt out next year. If it's going to be my team, I'll voice my opinion. If he don't like it, he can opt out. I ain't going nowhere."

Kobe: "I'm not changing my game whatsoever. I take good shots, hit the open man when he's there. I definitely don't need advice on how to play my game. I know to play my guard spot. He can worry about the low post."

Shaq: "I know he doesn't care about what [we do]. That'll just tell you the type of person he is. I've never been deemed as selfish. Just ask Karl and Gary why they came here. One person. Not two. One. Period. So, he's right. I'm not telling him how to play his position. I'm telling him how to play team ball."

Even before this latest williwaw, the Lakers stood to be the most scrutinized team in the league, maybe in NBA history. There were the additions of the two future Hall of Famers after last spring's loss to San Antonio. There was Bryant's off-the-court situation; we still don't know when his trial might start and to what extent his play and availability will be affected. Stern and his deputy, Russ Granik, cannot wait for tonight because, they hope, the games will deflect attention from this unseemly affair.

"The Lakers have very substantial news on the court," Granik said last week. "I think, for most basketball fans, that's certainly a prime area of consideration, to see how Karl and Gary mix with the existing stars and see where that goes."

We didn't get much of a chance to see them all together in the exhibition season. Bryant sat out six games and Shaq missed four. In the two games the stars were all on the court, the Lakers went 0-2, including a 107-101 loss to the Clippers at Staples Center. After that game, Jackson mentioned the word "implode" and he wasn't talking about razing the Great Western Forum.

How this plays out over the course of the season is anyone's guess. The Lakers were Everybody's Choice to win it all in July. But August brought about Bryant's assault charge and October has seen renewed verbal hostilities between the two players.

The Lakers got through the 2000-01 season despite bickering between the two supernovae that didn't end until April. They then steamed through the playoffs with a 15-1 record, the only loss coming in overtime. This time around, the dust-up has already begun, and the end result may be Bryant playing elsewhere next season. It could happen, especially if he grows weary of Shaq's comments. (There's also the chance he could not be playing anywhere next season.)

Then again, this could be old news by June. Championship parades tend to be big healers. The Lakers know that. But if you were looking for Camp Good Karma, look elsewhere. Nothing this season is going to come easily for them -- and that includes what many thought would be the easiest thing of all: another title.

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