Fri, Jun 25, 2004 - Page 23 News List

LA hunts for young blood

NATIONAL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION Gary Payton exercised his US$5.4 million option Tuesday to return to the team next season, but Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Derek Fisher have opted out of their contracts

AP , EL SEGUNDO, CALIFORNIA

Former Miami Heat coach Pat Riley calls out plays during a game against the Chicago Bulls in this April 13, 1999 file photo in Miami, Florida. Riley, currently the Heat's president, confirmed on Wednesday that he met with Los Angeles Lakers officials about their coaching vacancy, but said that no contract offers were made.

PHOTO: AP

The Los Angeles Lakers don't have a coach and might have an overhauled roster next season. They'll put those uncertainties aside briefly to participate in today's NBA draft.

Barring a trade, the Lakers will have the 27th and 56th selections. Considering what's going on, need is difficult to gauge.

"Most of the time when you're drafting 25 to 28, you want to make sure you get an NBA player," general manager Mitch Kupchak said. "That would be our focus, to try to get a guy who can play in this league -- in a year or two be a pretty good player."

Gary Payton exercised his US$5.4 million option Tuesday to return to the team next season, but Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Derek Fisher have opted out of their contracts, making them unrestricted free agents.

And Shaquille O'Neal has asked to be traded.

Fisher became the latest to opt out, doing so Wednesday.

"This is an opportunity for him to see what the market is," Fisher's agent, Mark Bartlestein, said by telephone from Chicago. "He's a heck of a player. You only have so many chances in your career to test the market and so many chances to be a free agent.

"By no means does this mean he doesn't want to be a Laker. He'd love to stay a Laker. We're going to go through the process and see what happens."

Fisher would have earned US$3 million from the Lakers in each of the next two seasons had he not opted out. He can't sign with anyone including his former team until the middle of next month.

In beginning their search to find a successor for Phil Jackson, the Lakers met with former Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich on Tuesday. Team spokesman John Black wouldn't comment, nor would Jesse Brown, Tomjanovich's business manager.

Tomjanovich, 55, coached the Rockets to NBA championships in 1994 and 1995. He left in May 2003 after 12 years on the job. Apparently in good health after battling bladder cancer, he worked as a scout for the team this past season.

The Lakers haven't set a timetable for hiring a coach, although Kupchak said earlier this week he hoped to get it done as soon as possible -- hopefully within a couple weeks.

It was announced last Friday -- three days after the Lakers lost to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals -- that Jackson wouldn't return next season. He signed a five-year, US$30 million contract in June 1999.

Among other potential candidates to succeed Jackson are current Lakers assistants Kurt Rambis and Jim Cleamons and former Seattle and Milwaukee coach George Karl.

Rambis was the coach before Jackson was hired and was a member of Jackson's staff throughout his time with the Lakers.

Meanwhile, several teams have reportedly contacted the Lakers to inquire about O'Neal, under contract for US$27.7 million next season.

Malone's agent, Dwight Manley, said Wednesday his client will have a clearer picture of his health issues in the next few weeks.

"He's got a lot of different things going on -- he put a lot of things off during the season,'' Manley said. "I think he's going through the normal letdown of having worked so hard to win a championship and then not being able to play."

Malone, who turns 41 next month, re-injured his right knee during the NBA Finals. He joined the Lakers last summer in search of his first championship after 18 seasons with the Utah Jazz.

Malone has said he will only play next season if 100 percent healthy and almost surely will only play for the Lakers.

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