Lakers' run could be coming to an end

Updated: March 2, 2004, 2:09 PM ET
By Chad Ford | NBA Insider
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Begin dream sequence: It's July 14, 2004.

Kobe Bryant has just announced he'll be leaving the Lakers to sign with the cross-town rival Clippers.

Phil Jackson, unable to get the big bucks he wants in his contract extension, hops on his Hog and rides off into the sunset toward Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Gary Payton and Karl Malone already have fled for the hills. Both took huge pay cuts to come and play for a potential world championship in Los Angeles. With Phil and Kobe gone, both guys begin their quest for a team with more money and a better shot at a title in 2005.

The once-mighty Lakers now look something like this: Derek Fisher at the point, Kareem Rush at the two, Devean George and Rick Fox at small forward, Brian Cook at the four and the mighty Shaquille O'Neal looking bewildered in the middle of this crap.

The phone rings ... it's Shaq. He isn't happy.

End dream sequence, with Lakers owner Jerry Buss waking up in a cold sweat.

Jerry Buss
Buss' beloved Lakers once looked destined to run roughshod over the NBA this season. The combo of Payton, Kobe, Malone and Shaq gave the Lakers one of the most dominant starting fives in the history of the NBA. They had power, speed, athleticism and veteran leadership. But a season of injuries, controversy and uninspired play have destroyed any notion that the Lakers are locks for the NBA title.

Kobe's eyes are wandering, should he ever get out of his legal mess in Colorado. Phil seems in desperate need of a pick-me-up from Dr. Phil. Payton is calling L.A. a circus. The Mailman hasn't delivered in months. And Shaq is starting to look a little human as his body struggles to handle the pounding of the NBA season.

How quickly the best of times disintegrate into the worst of times.

Chad Ford

ESPN Senior Writer