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A Quick Fix on West Deal Doesn’t Fix Laker Troubles

Reconciliation, Laker style: Jerry Buss and Jerry West are trying to patch things up for the kids’ sake.

For the Lakers, the good news is that West is reconsidering his retirement and might stay another season. The bad news is, it might be only one more season, after which they’ll be back at this point--with West free to go where he may.

“I think Jerry [West] is going to end up staying as a consultant, rather than running things day to day as he has been,” a source said. “He’s going to be here less than he has been.”

Under this scenario, West would finish his contract and collect his $1.25-million salary. If he retires, insiders say Buss won’t pay him, nor would he release him to work for another team, like the C-C-C-Clippers.

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Of course, the “kids,” Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, can also be free agents next summer. Ominously, insiders say that under the current cloud, Bryant won’t accept an extension this summer, no matter what the Lakers offer.

With West in charge as before, re-signing Bryant would have been a slam dunk. Now it’s wait and see . . . and if West leaves unhappy--or if there are any other problems, like a disappointing finish or tensions on the roster--maybe the prospect of the century starts looking around.

Nor is there any guarantee that O’Neal, the franchise player around here, would stand for this, having already declared that if West leaves unhappy, Shaq will be “upset to the highest degree of upsetivity.”

The question is, does Buss consider the situation serious, dangerous, anything?

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So far, there has been no sign of urgency. Buss and West met 12 days ago, with West reportedly offering to finish his contract and consider a new one if Buss paid him the balance of a deferred bonus.

West was hoping to hear back the next day . . . or the next . . . or the next. The weekend came with no word from Buss.

Then this weekend came with no word from Buss.

West isn’t the total basket case he often sounds like--he’s actually a pretty happy tortured soul--but a couple of weeks of waiting for the phone to ring hasn’t done a lot for his off-season.

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Whatever happened to the Laker family? Whatever happened to the Buss who gave Pat Riley a $3-million severance package, Magic Johnson $14 million after he retired, Michael Cooper a $900,000 deal when he was on his way out and even extended Randy Pfund’s contract shortly before firing him?

Insiders suggest ego and/or a new fiscal conservatism, but nobody really knows. Buss doesn’t come around much any more, running the team through lieutenants Lou Baumeister and Bob Steiner, involving his children more and more.

Jimmy Buss is now ticketed for a role in player personnel, possibly as assistant general manager. If you’ve watched a lot of basketball, you have as much experience as Jimmy, who served a stint as president of the soccer Lazers and trained horses.

Jimmy has begun attending league meetings with his father. He went to the Desert Classic [college tryout camp] in April with West and Mitch Kupchak. He has a voice now and, reportedly, uses it. He wants to go after Charles Barkley.

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Put it this way: If you were West and you’d been doing this for years, and you had an assistant in Kupchak you had trained from the ground up, and scouts you hired and a network of contacts around the league, how much help would you want from the peanut gallery?

A consultant job would keep West around to help make big calls in what promises to be an important summer, with a roster they know must be reworked and the prospect of the rules changing in the coming labor storm.

There’s growing conviction Del Harris will make it back, with Buss reported in absolutely no mood to pay $5 million a year, or $4 million, $3 million or $2 million to any Phil Jackson or George Karl.

Of course, what the Lakers will do to shore up Harris’ authority, which was undercut when Buss’ dissatisfaction surfaced and minority owner E. Johnson did a ringing postseason critique, remains to be seen.

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Delmer should get a year added to the one remaining on his contract. The Lakers owe him that and, besides, if they don’t give it to him, they may as well paint a bull’s-eye on him.

But, as West could tell you, Buss isn’t throwing out those million-dollar bonuses like tips anymore, nor are they all happy chappies. It used to be, the Lakers made mistakes here and there, but you knew that whatever the problem, they’d eventually get it right.

Now, as West also could tell you, it’s strictly wait . . . and wait . . . and see.

FACES AND FIGURES

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Adroitly wrapping himself in the flag--and daring the union to make itself look like a threat to the American way--Commissioner David Stern said players would “trash their country” if they boycott the World Championships. Stern is now waiting to see if the union falls into his trap. USA Basketball is trying to bring the issue to a head now, rather than wait until the expected lockout July 1, asking the members of the team--Grant Hill, Gary Payton, Vin Baker, Tim Duncan, Tim Hardaway, Terrell Brandon, Chris Webber, Alan Houston, Glen Rice, Kevin Garnett, Tom Gugliotta and Christian Laettner--to declare their intentions. If they pull out, USA Basketball is expected to send its Goodwill Games team, collegians like Duke’s Elton Brand, Utah’s Andre Miller and Connecticut’s Khalid El-Amin. Not only that, Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik suggested that if the U.S. doesn’t win the world title, we would have to (shudder) qualify for the Olympics, and the tournament might be held in March, which would mean no NBA players or collegians. Of course, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch loves having NBA stars involved, as do the heads of FIBA, the world organization that governs basketball, and they would make sure the U.S. got a schedule break--as in 1992, when the original Dream Team, which also had to qualify, pulverized the competition in July in Portland, Ore. . . . So far, it looks pretty good: Heading right into Stern’s trap, Michael Jordan said he’d support a boycott “in a heartbeat.” Barkley called it “the only leverage we have as players if they lock us out.”

Webber hasn’t said a word about his trade to Sacramento. He did have one telephone conversation with General Manager Geoff Petrie, but with three years left on his contract and an image that needs rehabbing, not further damage, he is treading lightly. Said Petrie, diplomatically: “I think he’s up in the air with a lot of his feelings.” . . . Gosh, how about this for a surprise: After everyone said how awful that Latrell Sprewell was, teams are lined up around the block in anticipation of fire-sale prices. Among the most interested are Miami, (for Brent Barry and Voshon Lenard), New York (for John Starks and Chris Mills) and, surprisingly, Indiana (for Jalen Rose and Dale Davis and/or Derrick McKey). . . . On second thought, maybe our manhood isn’t what this is about: Miami’s Pat Riley, who’s pragmatic enough to bid for Sprewell, even if he has written books portraying himself as an idealist, has rethought his comments commending Alonzo Mourning for standing up to Larry Johnson. In fact, Riles, the foremost practitioner of manly defense, is now rethinking his entire philosophical stance and everything else. “I’m to the point where I’m tired of it,” he said. “Not only with my team, but I’m tired of it in the league, when guys go over the top.” . . . Keep thinking, Butch, it’s what you’re good at: The Philadelphia 76ers reportedly are ready to pay $5.6 million to buy out the last year of Derrick Coleman’s contract, hoping he gets no other big offers and they can re-sign him. If they just let him come back, he’ll make $13.2 million. Of course, Coleman has vowed privately never to return if the 76ers cut him loose. . . . Hold the principles another moment, will you?: How long do you think it will take Riley to arrive at DC’s doorstep? . . . Also available: None other than Hakeem Olajuwon. The Rockets recently discussed a trade for Orlando’s Penny Hardaway and Bo Outlaw. That’s what happens when your basic 35-year-old making $12.9 million slows down.

Early line on the draft: 1. Clippers--Mike Bibby. He’s working out for them and no one else, because his agent, David Falk, likes the idea of going No. 1. Since the new labor deal should stretch the rookie scale to five years, they may actually have the kid around a while. . . . 2. Vancouver--Paul Pierce. But they want to trade down and get him at No. 3 or 4. . . . 3. Denver--Michael Olowokandi, unless No. 4 Toronto makes a deal with the Grizzlies and leapfrogs them. Says Nugget General Manager Dan Issel: “Obviously he’s raw. He’s only played three years of basketball, but I think it would be stretching it to say he’s a project. He’s not a guy who you’re going to say, ‘Well, you’ll draft him and in four or five years, you’ll have a good player.’ He’s got some skills, there’s no question about that.” Issel already has offered the Grizzlies Bobby Jackson to swap picks and been rejected. . . . 4. Toronto--Raef LaFrentz, but the Raptors will try to leapfrog the Nuggets for Olowokandi. Do the Grizzlies want Marcus Camby? Doug Christie? Anyone the Raptors have? . . . 5. Golden State--Antawn Jamison. He wasn’t the pick of your dreams at No. 1, but he’s a bargain here. . . . 6. Dallas--Larry Hughes. 7. Sacramento--Vince Carter. 8. Philadelphia--Robert “Tractor” Traylor.


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