3 Los Angeles Lakers At 40, a superstar begins a new adventure with an uncertain role

October 27, 2003

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." --Jack McCallum

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Karl Malone COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH A NEW GEOMETRY Payton's penchant for posting up may make him a square peg in the triangle offense.

ENEMY LINES
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."

FAST FACT

By scoring 30.0 points per game last season, Kobe Bryant joined
Elgin Baylor and Jerry West as the only Lakers to average 30.

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
with 2002-03 statistics

Record: 50-32 (5th in West)
Points scored: 100.4 (4th in NBA)
Points allowed: 98.0 (23rd)
Coach: Phil Jackson(fifth season with Lakers)

SHAQUILLE O'NEAL

POS. PVR PPG RPG APG BPG SPG FG% FT%
C 3 27.5 11.1 3.1 2.37 0.57 57.4 62.2

DEVEAN GEORGE

POS. PVR PPG RPG APG BPG SPG FG% FT%
SF 107 6.9 4.0 1.3 0.54 0.79 39.0 79.0

GARY PAYTON[1]

POS. PVR PPG RPG APG SPG FG% 3FG% FT%
PG 14 20.4 4.2 8.3 1.66 45.4 29.7 71.0

KOBE BRYANT

POS. PVR PPG RPG APG BPG SPG FG% 3FG%
SG 6 30.0 6.9 5.9 0.82 2.21 45.1 38.3

KARL MALONE[1]

POS. PVR PPG RPG APG BPG SPG FG% FT%
PF 23 20.6 7.8 4.7 0.38 1.68 46.2 76.3

BENCH PVR* 2002-03 KEY STATS

G DEREK
FISHER 163 10.5 ppg 2.9 rpg 3.6 apg 1.13 spg 40.1 3FG%
F RICK
FOX 269 9.0 ppg 4.3 rpg 3.3 apg 0.91 spg 42.2 FG%
F[1] BRYON
RUSSELL 283 4.5 ppg 3.0 rpg 1.00 spg 35.3 FG% 32.9 3FG%
F-C[1] HORACE
GRANT 307 5.2 ppg 1.6 rpg 1.4 apg 0.60 spg 52.0 FG%
F SLAVA
MEDVEDENKO 312 4.4 ppg 2.4 rpg 0.3 apg 43.4 FG% 72.1 FT%

NEW ACQUISITION[1]
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 94)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)