- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

The Lakers are threatening to put aside their pettiness and disharmony and claim the championship they thought was theirs going into the season.

The Lakers drilled the Kings last week, one sign of their renewed purpose with nine games left in the interminable regular season. The other is their sudden flirtation with securing the best record in the Western Conference and homecourt advantage in the first three rounds of the playoffs.

The Lakers are whole again, resilient as ever, even if they no longer have the aura of invincibility after rushing to an 18-3 record at the start of the season.

Theirs has been a season littered with injuries, discord and the circus-like maneuverings of Kobe Bryant, who has been bound to Colorado because of legal necessity and linked to nearly every team in the NBA because of impending free agency.

Bryant has not talked himself out of Los Angeles yet, but his talk has contributed to the speculation.

Bryant remains at odds with Shaquille O’Neal, if not Gary Payton, and undoubtedly could have alienated Karl Malone as well, if Malone had not missed half the season because of a knee injury.

The Lakers have four future members of the Hall of Fame in the starting lineup, plus one on the bench in the Zen master, feeling ever challenged to deliver the goods with a team that possibly has no shelf life beyond the season.

Payton has questioned his decision to sign with the Lakers last summer after bristling under his reduced minutes and limited freedom in the triangle offense. He often can be found nodding asleep after delivering a pass to Bryant, knowing he is not apt to see the ball again.

Malone has wondered whether he has the desire to prod another season out of his 40-year-old body following the death of his mother last August and the first serious injury of his career.

Both Malone and Payton joined the Lakers with only one notion — to win the first championship of their impeccable careers. Even they appear to have been taken aback by the dysfunction of the Lakers after accepting bargain-basement contracts to play alongside O’Neal and Bryant.

Yet if any team can compartmentalize its quarrels and wounded egos, it is the Lakers.

They seemingly do not feel at peace unless there is chaos all around them, whether their source of discontent is the league office, the team’s front office, the referees or each other.

O’Neal is the one player who can right all the grievances, assuming Bryant is passing him the ball. If not, O’Neal goes public with his ball-sharing concerns, Bryant goes into his Jenny Craig calorie-counting mode, and the Lakers treat the airing as a cleansing mechanism.

Somehow, in the past, the petulant ones have been able to forge an uneasy alliance in the playoffs, as they are inclined to do again.

O’Neal has not felt compelled to be motivated in the regular season since 2001, the second of the team’s three consecutive championships. His tendency to take a powder during David Stern’s bill-paying exercise resulted in the ascent of the Spurs last season.

O’Neal, as the self-proclaimed most dominant ever (MDE), remains the one element of the playoffs for which there is no good counter. Malone, an underrated passer, provides a liberating balance to O’Neal.

This is the persuasiveness of the Lakers, no incense, Zen or pet rocks about it.

The Mavericks are not to be taken seriously, the Timberwolves could rejoice in merely winning a playoff series, the Kings are wallowing in the uncertainty of Chris Webber’s return, and the Spurs are not expected to find a David Robinson substitute in Radoslav Nesterovic in the playoffs.

The Lakers, meanwhile, have checked the calendar and noticed it is spring.

As a team seemingly drafted by a Rotisserie League owner, the Lakers are not likely to be so abundant again. Even the return of the Zen master is in doubt. He is in the last year of his contract, the negotiations on hold, although he does date the owner’s daughter.

The Lakers have what amounts to a one-time-only deal, cause enough to sand away all their rough edges.

They are stuck with one another for now. They might as well get a championship ring out of it.

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