WINS COULD KEEP LAKERS INTACT.
Understanding motives is harder than understanding why the wind blows a certain way. Meteorologists might be able to predict the weather but there is no Doppler for understanding why some people are motivated by money, others by love and many by random whims.
In the NBA, players are motivated by money, then ego, and occasionally other things.
Unless Kobe Bryant has repeatedly lied to reporters and absolutely knows where he will play next season, nobody knows if the Lakers will keep their future Hall-of-Fame roster intact for next season. Also, nobody knows if the team's other possible free agents - Gary Payton, Karl Malone and Derek Fisher - will opt out of their contracts.
None of the four have outlined plans. But a simple theory blowing around is this: If they win, they're back.
If the Lakers end up winning the title, then the four players who can opt out of their contracts might stay. The big Lakers coup, obviously, would be if Bryant stays because he is the youngest.
If the Lakers lose - they would most likely watch Sacramento win its first NBA championship - those four will scatter. Bryant could be lured to Phoenix, San Antonio, the Clippers or elsewhere.
Payton could take a midlevel exception practically anywhere he desires, and Malone simply could retire. Don't expect the demand for Fisher to be high; he might stay with the Lakers anyway. But that's not going to make up for the lost three.
Of course, the opposite could be true, especially for Malone. If the Lakers win a championship, then he might retire because he would have attained his goal.
So much is up in the air that the real question is: How important is this with the Lakers poised to make another championship run?
The answer is ``very'' because it underscores just how crucial this next month and the playoffs are for the future of the franchise. With the possibility of Bryant leaving via free agency, the franchise is at a crossroads.
Sure, it's important - and fun - to see if the Fab Four can dominate the league, but the implications of the franchise's future might be more important. Exactly where would the Lakers be if Bryant, Payton, Malone and Fisher left?
Phil Jackson has no contract past June. Would he stay around if the Lakers reverted to rebuilding mode? Are the Lakers' young players solid enough to build around?
The speculation is never-ending, and it's still uncertain whether this team can be a serious contender.
The Lakers' big four have played together in 26 of 69 games, and the past few days, they have been wobby but still winning.
``We know we have a lot of improvements to make,'' Bryant said. ``It's a process. You have to continue to work at it. That's the most important thing.''
Instead of enjoying a dominant season as hoped back in November, the Lakers have been scrambling with 18 starting lineups. During their run of three championships, they used 12 starting lineups.
Malone still is recovering from a sprained knee because he still feels discomfort after games. Malone has been comparing these games in March as ``training camp.''
With Sacramento coming into town Wednesday and Minnesota at Staples Center on Friday, the Lakers finally will have a chance to show how close they fare against the league's best.
``We do have to play better basketball Wednesday and Friday, if we're going to beat opponents that are sitting ahead of us, as far as the standings are concerned,'' Jackson said. ``That means we have to be more disciplined, more precise on the offensive end with better shot selection.''
Malone has played in just 30 games with the Lakers, but at times he sounds as if he has been in Los Angeles for years.
After Friday's win over the Clippers, he said, ``You don't want to coast, but I like the fact that we executed when we had to.''
--Disgruntled in Orlando: Tracy McGrady's disgruntled season just keeps getting worse. After the Magic was routed by Golden State this week, McGrady let out comments that warranted meetings with general manager John Weisbrod and coach Johnny Davis.
In the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel, McGrady was quoted as saying, ``You could tell by the first quarter it was going to be a long night and a struggle. It was one of those games you just already put in the books, man.''
Apparently, the Magic get up for games against top teams, but when they face poor teams, McGrady said, ``It's like 'What are you playing for?' ''
--Superstar comments: If McGrady's comments weren't the most outrageous this week, Allen Iverson's might be. Iverson refused to play when 76ers coach Chris Ford wanted to use him as a reserve, not a starter. Iverson was coming back from knee injury.
Iverson reportedly said, ``I do not know any franchise players that come off the bench. I do not know any Olympian that comes off the bench. I do not know any All-Star that comes off the bench.''
--Odds and ends: Former Clippers forward Darius Miles appears to be adapting to his surroundings in Portland, Ore., as police investigate a fight at a strip club that allegedly involves him and teammate Qyntel Woods. ... Jeff Van Gundy might be living in the past with the Houston Rockets signing former Knicks forward Charles Oakley to a 10-day contract to join assistant Patrick Ewing, with whom he played while with New York. Oakley said in the Houston Chronicle, ``It's a Knicks reunion, but we don't have no barbecue.''
(1) WHATS' ON
(2) Daily News/CBS 2/KCAL 9 SPORTS CENTRAL POWER RANKINGS
- Ross Siler