LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers have a polished, dominant superstar in Kobe Bryant. They have a sweet-shooting, uber-skilled big man in Pau Gasol. And they have rough-and-tumble center in Andrew Bynum, who not only doesn't hesitate to knock a penetrating guard to the floor but also seems to actually relish the opportunity to do it.
The talented troika generates most of the media attention and could probably win 50 games playing alongside Lakers PR boss John Black and equipment manager Rudy Garciduenas.
But for L.A. to regain its championship swagger, which defined the team earlier in the decade but abruptly vanished against Boston in the 2008 NBA Finals, the ability of another three players to successfully handle one position will be critical.
The players: Lamar Odom, Vladimir Radmanovic and Trevor Ariza.
The position: small forward.
Each brings something different to the table. Odom is a prototypical point forward, a smooth ball-handler who can both ignite a fast break and finish one. Radmanovic is the Lakers' best deep threat, a floor spacer who opens up the lanes for slashing guards. And Ariza is a long-armed defensive maven with superior athleticism and a knack for finding the ball near the basket.
"It's a good problem to have," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
Players, however, are not robots, and with Odom (who started 77 games at power forward last season), Radmanovic (a starter for 41 games last season) and Ariza each having a solid argument to play the bulk of the minutes, tensions can mount. That was evident in training camp when Odom initially balked at the possibility of moving to the bench to make way for Bynum's return from a knee injury.
But two weeks into the season, the Lakers appear to have found the right formula. Radmanovic starts (Jackson said he's "playing exceptionally well" and holding his own defensively), Ariza backs him up and Odom fills in at both forward positions. While Jackson says he isn't married to the current rotation, he's satisfied with it for now.
"It's really a combination of personalities and games that fit together," Jackson said. "Hopefully, [Odom, Radmanovic and Ariza] can keep complementing each other so this thing works right. Right now, Vlady works well with that first unit. His shooting ability stretches the defense."
Jackson has kept all three players happy in part through his distribution of minutes. While Odom (26.7 minutes a game through Tuesday), Radmanovic (22.3) and Ariza (22.7) get close to equal playing time, Jackson has appeased Radmanovic by making him the starter while giving both Odom and Ariza significant action in crunch time. Odom (9.2) and Ariza (9.0) are among the team leaders in fourth-quarter minutes.
That's especially important for Odom, who is making $14.1 million in the final year of his contract and will be looking to secure a lucrative, long-term deal in the offseason. Though Odom still considers himself a starter, he has accepted the current situation.
"It is what it is," Odom said. "We lost in the Finals and our mission is to get back there. I won't divert that. I'm going to do what I have to do. Whether it's come off the bench and play five minutes or 20 minutes, it doesn't make a difference to me. I'm 29 years old. This is my 10th season. My goal is to win by any means."
• With a 2-5 start, Dallas is a team still searching for its identity. But the Mavericks may have found part of it from an unheralded offseason acquisition. Gerald Green, a former Slam Dunk champion whose career looked to be on life support after being released by Houston last season, has emerged as a key role player in the Mavericks' rotation. With Josh Howard sidelined with a wrist injury the last two games, Green stepped into the starting lineup and averaged 15.0 points and 7.0 rebounds.
"I feel really comfortable playing here," Green said. "The coaches work with me every day. They make sure I don't make the same mistakes."
Said coach Rick Carlisle: "Expectations were low for [Green]. We knew we were getting a guy who, from an ability standpoint, was in the top five percent in the league. Ever since he came in, he has been a worker. He's been humbled. The spectacular elements of his game always stand out, but the things that are really important to help us are his consistencies defensively and playing the game at a steady pace."
• One Eastern Conference coach on the Allen Iverson trade: "Detroit's strength over the last six seasons has been their defense. They always started five guys who were very strong defensive players. But when Iverson is in the lineup, all of a sudden they have a weak link. You can post him up with big guards, and when you have someone quicker, you can put him in pick-and-rolls all day. At the end of the day, that's going to hurt them the most."
• While the Celtics appear to be in midseason form, at least one assistant coach isn't sold on Boston's replacing James Posey with Tony Allen: "When we play them, we tell our guys that when [Allen] gets the ball, back way off. Posey's strength was his ability to stretch the defense. When Allen's out there, we're hoping he will shoot." For the record, Allen has misfired on all eight of his three-point attempts this season.
If you were a man, you would issue an apology to Scott Foster today. Are you?-- Pete, Laytonsville, Md.
Sorry, Pete, but I'm not sure what I'd be apologizing for. Yes, I have been critical of both the veteran referee and the NBA for letting his relationship with Tim Donaghy hang out there all summer with no explanation. But all I wanted was that explanation, which Foster provided last week. Leading up to my interview with him, I believed he was innocent. I talked to trusted sources with the NBA as well as people involved with the investigation, all of whom cleared Foster. But I wanted to hear it from him. I wanted to look Foster in the eye and hear his side of the story.
I'm sorry that Foster has had to endure the humiliation of having his name dragged through the mud for the last four months, but I'm not sorry for calling for a simple explanation.
Your position on Stephon Marbury is naive and way too kind. Why not just leave him inactive but on the roster? That way, you get a modicum of value for the $21.9 million and prevent him from playing for someone else. And if he starts engaging in conduct detrimental to the team, you suspend him for it. This is the only sound business decision.-- Anonymous, College Station, Texas
If we were talking about any player other than Marbury, I might agree with you. But Marbury represents all that has gone wrong with the Knicks in the last four years. His teammates don't like him -- coach Mike D'Antoni knows this -- and no matter what he says, he will never be satisfied with a reduced role. I think Marbury actually prefers being inactive to playing 8-10 minutes per game.
The only solution is to cut him. Consider that despite not playing a minute this season, Marbury is still a magnet for the media after the game; reporters are hoping to catch him the moment he decides to pop off. That's not good for a team desperately trying to change the culture of the franchise.
What value would Marbury have in February and what could the Knicks get for him then? How does that compare with cutting him now?-- Rick, Arlington, Va.
Right now, Marbury's value is zero. I talked to a few general managers this week and they said the Knicks have no hope of dealing him because a) they won't take back a contract that goes beyond this season, and b) they want a young player in return.
Marbury's value increases incrementally as the season progresses (and the Knicks sign another paycheck), but I just don't see a team willing to meet New York's demands by the trade deadline. Any team that calls about Marbury is only interested in making the trade for future cap flexibility. Knicks president Donnie Walsh might be willing to accept a player with one extra year on his deal, but he won't make any moves that jeopardize his plans to get New York under the cap in the summer of 2010.
Cutting him now doesn't help them financially, but it saves them from reading Marbury's name in a never-ending news cycle.
Guaranteed contracts have ruined the NBA. If they can't do away them, then they need to limit the number of guaranteed years to two or three. The league is full of players who quit trying after they land the fat, long-term deal.-- Joe, Indianapolis
I couldn't agree with you more, Joe. Being based in New York, I watch Jerome James and his burgeoning waistline steal millions from the Knicks every day. But there is nothing the league can do about it. The players' association isn't going to give up guaranteed deals, and nothing short of a prolonged work stoppage will change that.
What the NBA needs are more smart general managers. Too often GMs will sign players to ridiculous long-term contracts because it's easier to sign a player and then complain when it doesn't work out than risk not signing him and seeing the team possibly suffer as a result. How many times have we looked on in shock when a team overpays for a player and then puts him on the trading block a year later? What about Vince Carter? Do you think New Jersey regrets giving him $60 million for four years? How about Corey Maggette? How long before the Warriors make Maggette and his $50 million deal available?
It will be interesting to see how Trail Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard handles his roster in the next few years. Pritchard has shrewdly assembled a talented young roster that has the potential to develop into a Western Conference powerhouse over the next five years. But many of those youngsters will be looking for megadeals in the next couple of years. The players Pritchard decides to re-sign and those he lets walk and/or trades will be worth watching.