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ON BASKETBALL

End likely to signal new beginning for Lakers

In the end, it was still about the individual. Moments after getting shredded by a group that defined the concept of T-E-A-M, it was all about me for the Lakers.

Phil Jackson said there was a slim chance he'd be back. Kobe Bryant said he had no clue, other than to confirm for the umpteenth time that he will opt out of his contract and see what's out there in free agency. Shaquille O'Neal, who is under contract for two more years, probably summed it up as only he can.

"It's going to be a funny summer," Shaq said Tuesday night, after the Lakers were eliminated by the Pistons in five games in the NBA Finals. "Everyone's going to take care of their own business and everyone's going to do what's best for them. I don't know what that entails."

We can safely surmise that one development will be a diaspora not seen since the Bulls went every which way following the 1998 title season. But that Chicago team didn't have the intramural feuding that characterized this Lakers team. That team rallied around its coach, not against him. But when the dust settled after the Bulls won the 1998 title, Jackson went into exile, Michael Jordan (briefly) retired, Scottie Pippen was traded to Houston, and, worst of all, Luc Longley went to Phoenix. No wonder they haven't recovered.

No one knows what's going to happen with this Lakers group except that the Lakers who take the floor next fall won't look very much like the Lakers who left the Palace of Auburn Hills with their ears back and their tails between their legs. Virtually every player of note, except Shaq, will become a free agent or has a chance to become one. (For purposes of accuracy, neither Devean George nor Rick Fox is deemed to be a player of note even though each has been a starter.)

The biggest "if" is Bryant. It's interesting to note that of all the possible locales for Kobe next season, one possibility is never mentioned: Colorado's Department of Corrections. Kobe's going to the Clippers. Or the Knicks. Or the Suns. Or staying put. But there's also the possibility, however unlikely, that that felony sexual assault charge just might stick.

It was 11 months ago tomorrow that Bryant was charged. There hasn't even been a trial date set yet. Given the pit-bull tactics of Bryant's lawyers during pretrial hearings -- overturning the Colorado rape shield law? -- you can expect more of the same at trial. And it will all be out there for everyone to see, hear, and digest.

So there's free agency and freedom for Bryant. One he controls. The other he doesn't.

There is a consensus around the league, however, that Bryant is not married to the almighty dollar; otherwise he would have signed with the Lakers, who can offer him more than anyone else. In other words, he might take less elsewhere; he turns 26 in August. There's also a prevailing sentiment that the Lakers will not enable Bryant to go elsewhere by executing a sign-and-trade. When the Kings made that clear a couple of summers back with Chris Webber, the player's options were limited to Sacramento or somewhere else for $100 million less. Webber re-signed.

Jackson appears to have run his course. One thing about Phil is that his sense of timing (not to mention location) has always been impeccable. He knows what's going on and if it's disassembling on the inside as it is on the outside, who can blame him for heading to the Montana hills? But no one else got Shaq and Kobe -- together -- to the NBA Finals. He did it four times in five years.

Karl Malone looks cooked. Don't underestimate what his injury did to the Lakers. It's not an excuse. It's reality. But he's going to be 41 next month and his plaque in Springfield is already waiting for him, with or without a ring. As he put it after Game 5, "There are guys that have rings that don't deserve to have them, and there are guys that you think deserve them that don't have them. I'm one of those."

Gary Payton can opt out of his contract, but he does so knowing he's unlikely to get the $5.4 million he's owed anywhere else. (That was Payton and not some impersonator in the Finals, wasn't it?) Then again, if Kobe goes and Phil goes, maybe the new coach will see the light and let Payton run the show. That would be Gary's line of thinking, anyway.

Derek Fisher can opt out. Fox has one year left, but has talked about retiring, even if the Lakers remain unconvinced he will willingly part ways with $5 million. Slava Medvedenko is a free agent.

Change is coming and in a big way. Shaq, the biggest of them all, doesn't appear to be a part of the movement, but you never know. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was traded. Wilt Chamberlain was traded twice. But that was in the pre-salary cap days, and O'Neal's hefty take ($29 million plus) makes him hard to move.

One of the wilder theories is that the Lakers will move Shaq, who turned 32 in March, and rebuild around a re-signed Bryant and whatever players O'Neal might bring in a trade. There undoubtedly will be others before the start of training camp. When general manager Mitch Kupchak suggested there would be no offseason, he wasn't kidding.

As O'Neal reminded everyone during his midnight confessions after Game 5, "This summer is going to be a different summer for a lot of people. Everyone is going to take care of their own business and everyone is going to do what's best for them, including me." 

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