Laker Possibilities Ring True

"We'd like to be the team to make America forget about the Yankees. You've seen what the Yankees have done, what the Bulls did in the '90s. The pieces are here for the team to improve and get better."

Rick Fox, Lakers

"We have met the enemy and he is us."

Pogo (Walt Kelly)

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Suddenly, it's Phillies season!

The clock struck 12 on the 76ers' dream Friday night but in the latest Laker Era, the calendar turned to Year II.

The Lakers aren't a dynasty yet, but they're moving in that direction, with a roster that showed how dominating it can be in a 15-1 postseason . . . and may well be upgraded by the time it plays its next game.

They won this title as they won the last one, without a proven scorer on their bench after the J.R. Rider initiative went up in smoke. This summer, they may be able to add someone more reliable (who wouldn't be?) like Mitch Richmond, who says he'd like to come, with one of their salary-cap exceptions and they may pursue a younger power forward with the other.

Their destiny, of course, depends on the relationship between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, who arrived at their annual reconciliation and will now live happily ever after, or at least for the next three months.

As a tandem, they're still evolving.

Both players say they developed a new respect for each other, etc., but even during the NBA Finals, O'Neal was heard grousing about not getting the ball enough, although not when he was near any live mikes.

After the first-round sweep of Portland, Bryant, asked if it wasn't a relief to have all the controversy behind him, answered: "Until next season."

Two sweeps and a 4-1 victory in the finals later, it isn't so hard for them to belief in peace in their time, but we'll find out next season, won't we?

"We were rattled a little bit, but we bounced back," said Bryant a couple of days ago. "We became even stronger than we were. So I don't see that [disharmony] being a threat at all.

"[Grinning] But I'll let you know in October . . . November . . . December . . . January. . . . We're happy to be winning until next January when people start talking about trading one of us."

Someone won't be back next season although O'Neal and Bryant look pretty safe. Here's a look at their roster:

O'Neal--After taking last summer off and needing the first half of the season to get in shape, he closed this season even more dominating than he'd been before. He vows he'll come in at a ballerina-slim 295 next fall, which would be a pleasant change for the Lakers.

Bryant--In a turbulent season for him, he got over a huge hump, becoming a teammate off the floor as well as on. He's known for quantum leaps, followed by regression, but he's now on a truly elite level.

Derek Fisher--Laker officials say his rocket ascent has already turned their summer around. Before, they were likely to use their bigger $4.25-million exception to get a starting guard, like Kendal Gill, whom they pursued last summer. Now Fisher is their starter, a tenacious defender and, for the first time, a legitimate three-point threat.

Rick Fox--While people were lamenting the loss of Glen Rice, Fox was slowly returning to his old form as a solid starter who could defend, handle the ball and keep defenses honest from beyond the arc.

Horace Grant--Decision time. Grant was an upgrade over A.C. Green, but at 35, Horace's numbers (8.5 points, 7.1 rebounds) were modest. They could bring him back, or try to upgrade and cut him, or keep him as a reserve, since everyone loves him as a guy. However, Jerry Buss thinks his payroll is already pretty high.

Robert Horry--Valuable, if pricey, reserve at $5.3 million a year, with a history of chilling during the season and reemerging in the playoffs like Brigadoon, rising out of the mist. He can opt out but has said he'll return.

Rider--After living up to the worst predictions, there's no reason to think he'll be back, except Coach Phil Jackson seems to have a soft spot for him. Even after Jackson removed him from the roster, they didn't cut him . . . yet.

Brian Shaw--Handy veteran with another season under conract.

Ron Harper--He's not just veteran, he's hoary. Jackson would like to make him an assistant coach.

Mark Madsen--Willingness to mix it up will keep him around. Even at 6 feet 8 (maybe), Jackson used him as O'Neal's backup. Needs a jump shot to move up.

Tyronn Lue--Never got much of a chance under Jackson, until the finals. Phil likes bigger guards so we'll have to see when, or where Lue gets his next chance.

Devean George--Big guard who has possibilities, but he's raw and Jackson prefers veterans. The Lakers could pick up George's option for 2002-2003 but will reportedly wait till they see how he does next season.

Greg Foster--Has the option of returning for another season at $1.75 million, but it's plain the Lakers would like to see him move on. Jackson envisioned him as a backup center but was so down on his defense, he went to the younger, smaller, more limited Madsen.

Mike Penberthy--With the rules changes, shooters will be even more important, and he can do that.

Slava Medvedenko--The 6-11 Ukrainian spent the season on the injured list, suffering from a bad case of not knowing the language and the NBA, but the Lakers have hopes for him. Has offensive skills but has yet to show if he can be the defender/rebounder they need at power forward.

The best may be yet to come, or, like this season, the best and the worst.

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