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THE NBA / MARK HEISLER : A Keen Sense of Direction Comes From Lakers’ West

East is east but West is still best: There aren’t a lot of general managers who would have dared this one, trading one of the game’s better centers for a 17-year-old high school guard, but he’s Jerry West and they’re not.

No one had drafted a high school guard before, much less traded a real player for one, but if the Hornets can get Vlade Divac out of his bedroom (hint: try a two-year extension and some Serbian pastries), West will have.

West wasn’t the only executive who saw greatness in Kobe Bryant. Several others did too. They just weren’t willing to bet everything on it.

The new Net boss, John Calipari, worked Bryant out late in the game, fell head over heels and seemed set to take him. “You have to understand,” Calipari said the day before the draft, “we’re building for two or three years from now.”

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On draft day, he let Kobe go by, making the safe pick at No. 8, Kerry Kittles, instead.

Imagine if Calipari had needed to trade Shawn Bradley for Bryant? He wasn’t even willing to trade Kittles.

This doesn’t mean it’s sure to work out for the Lakers, or even that it’s the percentage play. This is blue sky territory. No one knows how it will work out because no one has ever done it.

It will be hard for Bryant, who has no idea what he’s getting into, NBA father or no. He won’t play as much as he wants (no one else does so it’s asking a lot for him to understand) and he won’t be able to dodge the spotlight.

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On his first Christmas away from home, he’ll be averaging about 3.4 points a game and people will be asking if he’s disappointed with his progress, wishes he’d gone to school, etc. These days in the public mind, and that of many professionals, “long-term project” means “You’ve got 18 months to dazzle me.”

It’s a rough life, even in pacific Los Angeles. After seven seasons here, the lovable Divac was bade a fond farewell by XTRA’s noted quarterback-dogger, who called him a playground term for coward, concluding: “Vlade, thanks for the memories, get your butt to the airport.”

Bryant’s upside, however, is greatness. Without a great player, the Lakers were merely respectable, which doesn’t pay off here. They had last season’s sixth-best record but there wasn’t going to be any sentiment for a parade or a rally unless fans could throw the players on the bonfire.

Respectability can be a hole. West has been trying to burrow out since Magic Johnson retired in 1991 and James Worthy’s wheels burned out shortly thereafter, leaving the Lakers star-less.

They were a .500 team a year later when they traded Sam Perkins, their best player, for untested Doug Christie and notorious Benoit Benjamin. West thought Ben might be useful in a small way (he wasn’t) and Christie might hit big (he didn’t). By making the deal, however, West launched the Lakers into their future.

If it were easy, someone else would do it. Denial is preferred, illustrated most recently by the Knicks, riding soon-to-turn-34 Patrick Ewing to the end of his contract; and the Celtics, bringing in their annual cap-eating veterans such as Dominique Wilkins and Dana Barros.

With a nod from Jerry Buss--he reportedly told his execs, “You know me, I’m a gambler"--West has just re-launched the Lakers in the highest-stakes roll of all.

They can now get $8.5 million under the cap but have only a chance, not an assurance, of getting Shaquille O’Neal. If not, they’ll try Juwan Howard but he wants to stay in Washington. If neither come, they’ll look for a bargain like Chris Gatling and hold the rest of their money.

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Cap management, a phrase often uttered but seldom practiced, used to mean little since stars never hit the market. Now rookies are free in three years; in 1998 Joe Smith, Jerry Stackhouse, Antonio McDyess and Kevin Garnett, not to mention Penny Hardaway who has an out clause in his contract, could be there.

In the meantime, we can help Bryant with his arithmetic, or he can help us with ours.

WELCOME TO THE HOTEL CALIFORNIA

On the, uh, other side of town, the Clippers, underrated keepers of secrets, drafted Lorenzen Wright who is big, young, talented, personable and in the biggest surprise of all, wasn’t traded for three guys, one of them a free agent.

The only disagreement over Wright is how soon he’ll be ready. Elgin Baylor and Bill Fitch say he is as ready as Marcus Camby but, like Camby, might never be an NBA center. There are other admirers who think that even if it happens, it’ll take a year or two.

It’s an important distinction since the Clippers, setting up shop at the same time-worn stand, have decided among themselves they must make a run at the playoffs.

They were ready to trade their pick for a veteran and had a juicy one lined up, Portland’s Rod Strickland. They were reportedly near a deal--their pick and Malik Sealy for Strickland--but Blazer General Manager Bob Whitsitt pulled back.

For the Clippers, everything still depends on re-signing Brian Williams, amid reports that they’re tightening their belts (see: move to Anaheim deferred again) and won’t like it if he asks for $6 million.

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If he goes, who cares how big, talented and personable Wright is? It’s like running water into a tub without closing the drain.

FACES AND FIGURES

As we ring down the curtain on another season of high finance and hijinks, we find the players caving in before David Stern’s lockout threat and at last signing a contract. Comment: What did you expect? Last summer’s coup leader, David Falk, has superstars to sign. No soap box for Michael Jordan this summer. . . . Leaving Indianapolis: Departing Mark Jackson thinks free agent Reggie Miller will remain a Pacer. “I think Reggie will want to be here,” Jackson said. “If the right offer is made, this is where he’ll probably stay.” . . . Nice defense: Denver Coach/GM Bernie Bickerstaff, defending the Jackson trade in which he gave up the No. 10 pick: “People talk about Mark Jackson not getting up and down the court but you look at what he did with the Knicks when Rick Pitino was coach.” Yeah, and that was only eight years ago. . . . The draft, reconsidered: Bucks wind up with Andrew Lang, Ray Allen and a 1999 No. 1 pick for Stephon Marbury so the deal looks better. In the second round, they get a point guard, Moochie Norris, who was expected to go in the first. . . . The 76ers get Ryan Minor in the second; before a disappointing senior year he was expected to make the lottery. On the other hand, the only thing separating them from the 6-6 and under league is Derrick Coleman, now in the 300-pound-and-over league. . . . Sayonara (?): Hornets bought out the final year of Robert Parish’s contract, meaning he could finally be through at 50 or whatever he is (actually only 42). They’re expected to renounce Kenny Anderson, who turned down $6 million a year in New Jersey and is unlikely to find anyone who’ll pay half as much. . . . Finding this poor doggie a home: The Charles Barkley sweepstakes continues. Charlie to Houston for Sam Cassell and Robert Horry foundered when Cassell, a free agent, asked for $7 million a year. This latest sends Barkley to Houston, Cassell and Horry to Denver, Dikembe Mutombo to Phoenix. Comment: Suns finally get a big man. Rockets get a third superstar for a last hurrah. Nuggets get bupkus.


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