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Shaq Still Explores Toe Options

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A month has passed since Laker center Shaquille O’Neal danced in puddles of champagne, on an arthritic big toe that made parts of his third championship season nearly unbearable.

Since then, O’Neal has accumulated opinions from foot specialists, their recommendations ranging from aggressive surgery to simple rehabilitation.

O’Neal, who nonetheless averaged 36.3 points and 12.3 rebounds in the Lakers’ NBA Finals sweep of the New Jersey Nets, has not yet chosen a course he hopes will allow him to recover his previous mobility and end the pain and necessity for anti-inflammatory medication.

While Coach Phil Jackson and other ranking members of the organization have urged O’Neal not to dawdle in the process, which could threaten O’Neal’s conditioning and the early part of the regular season, surgery--if that is chosen--probably would not occur until late in the summer.

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O’Neal, who last week became a second-class reserve officer for the police department of the Port of Los Angeles, recently has tended to some of his business interests in Los Angeles and, this week, in Arkansas. He intends to continue his law-enforcement education next summer, when he hopes to become a first-class reserve. Eventually, he’d like to be a sheriff, either in Louisiana, where he attended college, or Orlando, Fla., where he spends most of his off-season.

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NBA teams can sign free agents beginning Wednesday, when the Lakers could get a better idea about small forward Devean George, whose free agency has brought varying interest from about a dozen teams, according to his agent.

The Lakers declined the fourth-year option on George’s rookie contract in October, and now find themselves bidding against multi-year offers from a variety of clubs, the Washington Wizards and Minnesota Timberwolves expected to be strongest among them.

General Manager Mitch Kupchak hoped to spend this time locating a more conventional backup to O’Neal, and, indeed, he has entertained offers to free agents Arvydas Sabonis, Popeye Jones and Charles Oakley. If George were to sign elsewhere, however, Kupchak might be more inclined to sign a guard, even if he re-signs Brian Shaw, which he hopes to do.

Without George, Jackson’s small forwards would be Rick Fox and Tracy Murray, though Kobe Bryant then would get plenty of playing time on the wing, which he prefers.

If George and Shaw re-sign and the Lakers match offers for restricted free agent Slava Medvedenko, their roster would stand at 12. It is unknown if owner Jerry Buss would allow a 13th player, even at the relatively modest cost of $1 million for Oakley, or slightly more for Jones, who made $1.5 million with the Wizards.

Sabonis, 37, was out of the game last season after six seasons in Portland, but seems committed to returning, having spoken to several European teams and, perhaps, the Lakers as well.

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Jones had a decent season in Washington, where he averaged 7.0 points and 7.3 rebounds in 79 games.

The Lakers had early interest in San Antonio free-agent forward Malik Rose, until the Spurs agreed to pay him $42 million over seven seasons.

Medvedenko expected to play for the Lakers’ summer-league team but remained at home in the Ukraine to tend to his father, who was ill.

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Wednesday also is the first day the Lakers can offer Bryant a three-year, $54.8 million contract extension. Bryant has three years left on his deal with the Lakers, though he can opt out in two years. He has said he would wait until the collective bargaining agreement expires, also in three years, but that he expected to spend his career in Los Angeles.

It is possible the economic climate in the league would make the extension more attractive to Bryant.

“He’s indicated he’s not unhappy here,” Kupchak said. “We’re not going to pressure him. Personally, and I’m biased, I don’t think there’s a better team or city for him.

“They know there’s a contract extension here for them.”

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Guard Kareem Rush, acquired in the draft-day deal with the Toronto Raptors, has been bright, eager and a competent shooter in his first weeks as a Laker, assistant coach Kurt Rambis said Monday.

Whether that translates into regular-season playing time from Jackson, famously distrustful of rookies, is hazy.

“It depends on how well he picks things up,” said Rambis, who coaches the Lakers’ summer-league team in Long Beach. “He’s got to show the head coach he doesn’t have to worry about him executing the offense and defending the [shooting guards]. That’s a very tough job.”

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Rush has not played since Friday, when he fell and sprained his left wrist. X-rays were negative and he is day to day, though the team ends its schedule today.

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Bryant will wear shoes made by someone other than adidas for the first time in his NBA career.

Together since 1996, Bryant and adidas ended their partnership with an announcement Monday. The deal reportedly paid Bryant about $5 million a year.

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Bryant, who has endorsement deals with Sprite, Spalding and McDonald’s, will try different shoe brands in the coming season.


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