Is one ball enough for four players?


No matter who is on the floor, there is still only one basketball. There aren't two or three, there is one ball for a whole lot of shots.

This isn't the lay-up line, it's a game. Only one guy can shoot at a time, no matter how many want to.

It doesn't matter that it will be the one of the best collections of NBA talent in recent memory - a mini dream team - there is still only one ball.

One ball for four superstars and the poor guy who has the honor of being on the floor with them, to run up and down the court and maybe touch the ball once every 11 possessions.

The Los Angeles Lakers could have sewed up the 2004 NBA title before even stepping on the floor, or they could have just made a colossal mistake by signing a pair of players that started in the NBA when baggy shorts weren't even popular.

The Lakers can be called many things, but complacent isn't one of them.

After watching their hopes of another NBA title trickle away like the tears down Kobe Bryant's face following the loss to the San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers have been mildly busy in the offseason.

The Lakers have gotten commitments from former all-stars Gary Payton and Karl Malone to sign contracts for the upcoming season - contracts that were for considerably less money in the hope that they can win the NBA championship that has eluded both during their stellar careers.

Let's be real honest, neither of these players are in their prime. They aren't even a couple of years past their prime. To put it bluntly, they're old. No, they weren't playing when the sneakers were canvas and people shot free throws underhand. No, they don't qualify for the seniors special at Denny's. But they both were playing in the NBA when Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Kurt Rambis were still playing for the Lakers.

It wasn't that long ago that Payton and Malone were two of the best players in the game.

Payton began his career as a brash young rookie, who came into the NBA as a point guard who got others involved while playing the harassing defense that earned him the nickname, "The Glove."

Payton's game grew faster than his teammate Shawn Kemp's waistline. His outside shooting improved and he learned to post up smaller guards. After his first two years in the league, Payton averaged double figures and close to 10 assists a game. His best season had to be in 1999-2000 when he averaged 24.2 points and 8.9 assists per game.

While Payton's numbers - 20 points and eight assists per game - last season were pretty good, he isn't quite the same player he was. At age 35, no player is. The defense that he built his reputation on isn't quite as stifling, and the durability that allowed him to play nearly 40 minutes per game is gone.

A scorer is the perfect one-word description for Malone. In his 18-year career with the Utah Jazz, Malone has scored 36,374 points. Those points were scored in a myriad of ways - post ups, dunks, jump shots - most coming from John Stockton passes. Despite being a few weeks shy of his 40th birthday, Malone is one of the best-conditioned athletes in the NBA. He might not rebound or drive to the basket with same ferocity, but he is still good for 35 minutes, 25 points and 10 rebounds a game.

Let's see, the Lakers starting lineup will be Payton at the point, Kobe at shooting guard, Malone at power forward and Shaquille O'Neal at center with the small forward most likely being filled by Rick Fox depending how he recovers from the injury he suffered at the end of the season. With the other four, Rick Fox's wife could play small forward and the Lakers would still win 50 games.

People are already talking about next year's Laker squad eclipsing the Chicago Bulls' record of 73 wins in a season and penciled them into next year's NBA Finals.

But putting aging veterans on an already good team doesn't always equal success. Sometimes it can lead to disaster.

There are still several questions that need to be answered before the Lakers start getting sizes for another championship ring.

First, there is the little situation that Kobe has himself in. While it is unlikely that he is guilty of what he's accused of, on the off chance that he is guilty, he would be out indefinitely.

Then there is Shaq's weight issue. Specifically, how big will the Big Daddy be when the season starts? Shaq has vowed to get in better shape for next season? He also vowed that he wouldn't make any bad movies after Kaazam, yet he still starred in Steel the next summer.

Then there is the basketball itself. There is only one during a game. One ball and four players who like to shoot it. Shaq and Kobe have already bickered over who should be taking more shots, and now they're adding two more people into the mix? Payton has averaged close to 15 shot attempts a game while Malone has 18 shots. Add those the 19 shots and 26 shots the Shaq and Kobe averaged last year and you get a whole lot of shots going up. The small forward might as well be Rick Fox's wife because whoever it is, won't be shooting.

For all of the lauding about Phil Jackson's coaching abilities, this year could be his toughest job. He must mix four dominant players with four dominant personalties along with another player and make them not only happy, but play well in the NBA's toughest division.

Malone and Payton have both said that they are willing to defer to Shaq and Kobe when it comes to shots. For Payton, the transition won't be as difficult. He wasn't a scorer at the beginning of his career and became one more out of necessity. But for Malone, who has made it clear he wants to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's scoring record, not getting his shots will be an adjustment.

Sure he says not shooting as much won't bother him. But Dennis Rodman also said he wouldn't be a disciplinary problem.

Laker fans have been celebrating the new acquisitions and booking hotel rooms for next year's finals.

Still, there is only one basketball. You can't cut it up and give everyone a piece. One ball to satisfy four players hungry for success and an NBA championship.

In the end, will it be enough to keep each player happy, or will it tear the team's chemistry apart?


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