Two weeks since their championship desires ended on a lay-down night in Detroit, the Lakers are still burning, apparently no closer to a promise from Kobe Bryant and no nearer to talking Shaquille O’Neal back into their uniform.
As of Monday morning, there had been little contact between the Lakers and Rudy Tomjanovich in the week since Tomjanovich followed Pat Riley into town.
Tomjanovich remains the Lakers’ choice to succeed Phil Jackson, but there was a draft to deal with and the O’Neal uprising to suppress and there is speculation that General Manager Mitch Kupchak would rather not drag a new coach into such an environment. On the other hand, there are those who believe a little stability -- hire Tomjanovich, resolve O’Neal -- would do a lot to settle Bryant’s apparent wariness.
Those close to O’Neal said Monday there is nothing the Lakers could do to change O’Neal’s mind, that his desire to leave is no longer tied to Bryant or the contract extension talks that died months ago or anything but his displeasure with the Lakers.
He just wants to leave, said a source, “because the environment there is poison.”
It won’t be solved in O’Neal’s mind by hiring Tomjanovich or allowing Bryant to run off to the Clippers, though the lengths O’Neal would go -- he is under contract for the next two seasons, the second at his option -- to ensure a trade are unknown.
The free-agency period -- two weeks when teams may contact free agents but not sign them -- begins Thursday, and Kupchak finds himself in the same unbalanced position.
Already, he has conducted a coaching search, a draft and a half-hearted attempt to trade O’Neal without any idea of what his roster might look like on Aug. 1, never mind Nov. 1.
Already, because of events either out of his reach or that he suspects were out of his control, Jackson is gone, Bryant is teetering, O’Neal is shopping and the organization appears to be trembling.
In the past few days, Kupchak has had at least one long conversation with owner Jerry Buss, who is vacationing in Italy. There is no sense, however, that the team is changing its focus, and so it will continue to chase Bryant at any cost. The cost, so far, is Jackson and, apparently, O’Neal, along with the seven-year, about $130-million contract that could be Bryant’s.
So, free agency comes, 135 players hit the open market, and Kupchak doesn’t know if his priority is to replace a superstar center, a superstar swingman, both or neither. Teams can sign players beginning July 14.
The plan is to get quicker and more athletic. Assuming the triangle offense left with Jackson and that O’Neal will take up the middle for someone such as the Dallas Mavericks, the Lakers will build from the outside in.
But, and this must bring Kupchak great relief, a newspaper has reported that Chris Webber would be willing to come to the Lakers in a trade for O’Neal.
That’s the fall-back deal, apparently, in a summer that will end in a courtroom in Eagle, Colo., with Bryant’s future at stake during a sexual-assault trial and the Lakers with no choice but to pull for him and themselves.
Jim Cleamons is expected to interview with Ohio State Athletic Director Andy Geiger this week.... Bill Bertka will coach the Laker entry in the Long Beach summer league. Luke Walton and Brian Cook and draft picks Sasha Vujacic and Marcus Douthit are on the roster. Kareem Rush will play if his injured foot allows.