Payton takes less to join Lakers

By Steve Popper

New York Times News Service

This is a tale of a player who passes up millions of dollars to pursue a championship. It is the story of an agent who insists that his client's happiness is more important than money. And in a league in which the cash register can spin like a slot machine, those ambitions may just decide the next NBA championship.

While headlines on the free-agent market are usually accompanied by big salaries, Gary Payton made headlines this week by stating his intention to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers on July 16, the date when free agents can sign, for a deal starting at $4.9 million a year.

That figure is the midlevel exception, a loophole that allows teams over the salary cap to add a player -- usually a middle-of-the-road player.


Payton, a seven-time All-Star who won two Olympic gold medals, passed up the chance to go to the highest bidder and instead opted for the lesser pay from the Lakers. Payton, who will turn 35 later this month, will team with Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and either Karl Malone or the next power forward in line to sign on for even less money.

"I think it sends a message to the league that players want to play basketball at the end of the day," Payton's agent, Aaron Goodwin, said. "You are a small corporation with a window of time you have to go out and get top dollar. But there are times you have to go out and achieve your goals. One of Gary's is to win a championship. If he can do it, this might trigger other players to think this way."

Payton has spent almost his entire 13-year career in Seattle and made it to the finals once, in 1996, when the SuperSonics lost to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. He was sent to Milwaukee at the trading deadline this season, but Payton was concerned because the Bucks were for sale until recently.

Payton then chose the chance to push the Lakers, who won three consecutive titles before being eliminated this year, back to the top.

Lakers Coach Phil Jackson could have a team that resembles a wing of the Basketball Hall of Fame, but there are egos to stroke and shots to find for those players. Jackson won six titles in Chicago with Jordan, Scottie Pippen and a cast of role players, not this sort of assemblage of star power.

Can the players on this sort of roster coexist? "It depends on the character and chemistry of the team involved," said Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks' owner, who has a roster filled with starters and stars filling reduced roles. "There is no boilerplate, and no, more stars doesn't necessarily equal more success."

Cuban said he thought that the league's balance of power was shifting to teams willing to pay the luxury tax for being over the salary cap.

"I think the Spurs were the last time we will see a non-luxury tax champ for a while," he said in an e-mail message. "In a law of unintended consequences way, the tax is a threshold that proves to players the team is willing to lose money to win."


Payton made himself the first believer in this new economy. Now Malone may be next.

"Right now, he hasn't decided," said Malone's agent, Dwight Manley, But he added of Payton's decision, "It definitely makes it more interesting than before."

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