Team Dysfunctional blown out by Pistons

Originally Published: June 16, 2004
Associated Press

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- The breakup of the Lakers might begin any day now.

Phil Jackson, the most successful coach in NBA history, and Karl Malone, the league's second-leading career scorer, both said their careers could be finished following Tuesday night's season-ending loss to Detroit.

Kobe Bryant repeated his intention to opt out of his contract, and Gary Payton and Derek Fisher can do the same.

At least Shaquille O'Neal will be back, although he didn't sound thrilled about it.

"This summer is going to be a different summer for a lot of people," O'Neal said. "Everyone is going to take care of their own business and everyone is going to do what's best for them, including me."

O'Neal didn't elaborate, but said he wanted to speak with general manager Mitch Kupchak and "see where they want to go with things."

"Like I said, we are all going to do what's best for each other," O'Neal said.

The Lakers were prohibitive favorites to beat the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, but lost in five games.

Clearly, the better team won.

The finale on Tuesday night, a 100-87 Detroit victory, could only be described as embarrassing for the Lakers, who were out of contention by late in the third quarter and trailed by as many as 28 points in the final period.

The 58-year-old Jackson has completed the five-year, $30 million contract he signed in 1999. He was negotiating for an extension, but the Lakers broke off talks in February until after the season.

"My timetable is to meet with the management of the Lakers after the season, discuss some things that we have to discuss as an organization," he said. "And then we'll make a decision from there.

"But right now, I would say that it's a pretty slim chance that I'll be back coaching next year. I've had a lot of persuasion given to me by these kids, they were hoping I would win the 10th and retire."

Jackson spoke at the postgame news conference with four of his five adult children beside him.

"Maybe losing this one, this opportunity, is enough for me to say that it's time to give it up," he said. "But right now, I'm not going to make that decision or give that statement."

A Jackson-coached team hadn't lost in nine previous finals, six with Chicago and three with the Lakers. He entered the series tied with former Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach and hockey's Scotty Bowman for most by any coach or manager in a professional team sport.

The Lakers were supposed to be one of the best teams ever assembled after adding Malone and Payton to go with O'Neal and Bryant. In the end, they looked old and tired.

"It didn't come out as well as it has in the past, but I'm proud of my players," Jackson said. "They had a great series up until this one."

Bryant could be playing in another uniform or possibly headed to prison, depending on how his sexual assault trial goes.

"Right now I really can't answer that question," Bryant replied when asked if he had played his final game with the Lakers, who can pay him far more than anyone else if they re-sign him -- a maximum of seven years for around $140 million.

It's been speculated Bryant and Jackson aren't a good mix, but Bryant said that wasn't true.

"I love playing for Phil," he said. "I learned so much from playing for Phil and with Shaquille, too. I would not be opposed to playing with them forever. It's not just up to me. It's not my decision."

Malone watched in street clothes with an injured right knee as the Pistons won the finale. He said afterward he won't play next season unless he's completely healthy.

"It's too early to talk about that," he said. "I just want to take time to think clearly about what I'm going to do. I want to give them an answer as soon as possible.

"If I can't be 100 percent by training camp, I'll make that decision (to retire). I won't disrespect myself and basketball."

Malone plans to get an MRI and go from there, although he has said repeatedly he's certain he has a torn knee ligament.

"I'll make the right decision, whichever one it is," he said. "I have to be 100 percent, not 95 or 99."

Malone played in the third and fourth games of the finals after being injured in Game 2. A torn knee ligament sidelined him for 39 games during the regular season.

"Two games I played, I shouldn't," he said. "Tonight, I just couldn't go. Those were two of the most difficult games I've ever played. I got hurt on a freak accident. I made a cut and it just went out on me."

Malone joined the Lakers last summer in search of his first championship. He played his first 18 seasons in Utah.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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