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Real Big Deal Turns Into No Big Deal

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It took four willing teams, Patrick Ewing’s trade demand, Glen Rice’s money wishes, a sudden shower of millions, dozens of calculators, and the whirlwind deal making of super-agent David Falk to drag the NBA to the brink of one of the wildest trades in league history Monday.

Then one significant snag--Detroit’s logical unwillingness to accept seven marginal players to balance the salary-cap books--apparently brought it all crumbling down, pending further contortions or contractions.

It was a day of building anticipation, long discussions and ultimately, frustrating failure for four teams involved in a proposed and instantly infamous 13-player, multiple-draft pick, multiple-agenda lollapalooza.

For the Lakers and General Manager Mitch Kupchak, it was a tense day of waiting for official word that the trade was done and that they had acquired their long-sought power forward, Christian Laettner, and a solid backup center, Chris Dudley.

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Instead, word filtered back to the El Segundo offices that the deal was all but dead, though Falk is believed to be actively pursuing alternate packages.

The transaction, as composed, would have sent Rice and expensive Seattle big man Vin Baker to the New York Knicks, the 38-year-old Ewing to the Seattle SuperSonics and Laettner and Dudley to the Lakers.

Rice had already agreed to terms on a long-term contract with the Knicks, believed to be worth more than $50 million over five years, pending the completion of the deal.

But, as day turned into night, the Pistons reportedly got cold feet at the notion of accepting Tyronn Lue, John Celestand, Lazaro Borrell, Vernon Maxwell and assorted other journeymen.

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“There’s a high level of speculation, people guessing and writing stuff,” Falk said when reached late Monday. “Intelligent people know that until there is something to actually talk about, it’s just rumors.”

Asked if he would have anything to announce today, Falk said: “Possibly.”

The Laettner-for-Rice portion of the trade, especially if the Charlotte Hornets can be added (Laettner to the Lakers, Rice to Charlotte, Brad Miller and another Hornet player to Detroit), might still occur, a league source said.

The apparent collapse of the four-team deal, though, for the moment dashed the Lakers’ hopes of landing Laettner, 31, a player highly regarded by Kupchak and Coach Phil Jackson, while dealing Rice, whom Jackson suggested no longer fit into the Lakers’ plans.

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Reached Monday, before the trade appeared to collapse, Rice said he would have no comment until the trade was complete.

Dudley was to have been part of a side deal with the Knicks, who would’ve also sent draft pick Lavor Postell to the Lakers for little-used big man Travis Knight.

Neither Kupchak nor any official from the four teams were available for comment on the proposed transaction.

According to several league sources, this incredibly textured transaction was put together very quickly, perhaps only in the last few days, triggered by Ewing’s desire to be traded to a team that would give him a two-year contract extension.

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Soon, it was clear that the Seattle SuperSonics, who wanted to drop Baker’s gigantic contract from their books, were the top option, and the heart of the package--Baker to the Knicks for Ewing--was forged, with heavy salary-cap issues left to solve.

That opened up an avenue for the Lakers, who until then had received little interest in Rice, other than a tepid offer of free-agent Miller from Charlotte, the sources said.

And it created a soft landing place for Clipper free-agent forward Maurice Taylor, who agreed to sign with the SuperSonics for their $2.25-million mid-level salary-cap exception, assuming they end up with Ewing.

Rice, Ewing and Taylor are all represented by Falk.

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“This is a David Falk production,” said one NBA source, who admitted grudging admiration for the complexity and breadth of the deal. “This whole thing is his baby.”

The problem: A fourth team was needed to take a load of players to make the salaries balance out, and that turned out to be Detroit, at least in theory.

For the Lakers, the deal would have positively answered two questions:

-Would Kupchak, who took over as the team’s top decision maker after Jerry West’s retirement earlier this month, be able to get into the action during one of the most frenetic trading periods in league history?

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Though the Lakers won 67 regular-season games and their first NBA title in 12 years in 1999-2000, they have gone all summer without finding a plan to dispatch Rice in exchange for more size or athleticism or both.

Asked about Rice in June, Jackson said he would be “very surprised” if Rice were still a Laker by Sept. 1.

Efforts to sign free-agents Kendall Gill and John Amaechi for the $2.25-million exception fizzled and A.C. Green was released, leaving the Lakers without anybody to start at power forward.

--Could the Lakers ever find a power forward to suitably complement Shaquille O’Neal after unsuccessfully trying Elden Campbell, Robert Horry, Knight, Dennis Rodman and Green since O’Neal’s acquisition in 1996?

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Laettner, the famous Duke product who is due to become a free agent after earning more than $6 million this season, has career averages of 16 points and eight rebounds.

Though the 6-foot-11 Laettner had modest averages of 12.2 and 6.7 last season with the Pistons (his third NBA team since coming into the league in 1992), Jackson has told associates that he believes Laettner’s ability to make 15-foot jump shots and move the ball crisply fits nicely into the triangle offense.

Laettner also could presumably see time at backup center.

Without Rice, the Lakers’ starting small forward would almost certainly be Rick Fox, a starter in 1997-98 before moving to a backup role the last two seasons. Horry, meanwhile, could back up both forward spots, with Devean George possibly getting significantly more playing time in his second season.

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Times columnist J.A. Adande contributed to this story.


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