The Los Angeles Lakers' season has been more a series of tense
therapy sessions than a unified assault on a fourth straight
championship. There has been ranting, finger-pointing, anxiety,
soul-searching, confusion and hand-wringing. That's quite the
psychological smorgasbord--think of an extended encounter between
Tony Soprano and Dr. Melfi minus the sexual tension and the aroma
of cappicola--but who better to have seated in the therapist's
chair than Phil Jackson, the master of the touchy-feely side of
sport, a man who has often been accused of stirring up team
tension just so he can creatively defuse it? A decade ago
in Chicago, Jackson got Michael Jordan to follow his structured
offense, and when he came to L.A. in 1999, he got two young
head-butters named Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant to stop their
squabbling and start winning league titles.
The current challenge must be a piece of cake--right, Phil? "Tell
you the truth," says the lanky lord of the NBA championship
rings, "I've never gone through anything like this."
So even this Dr. Phil doesn't have a cogent answer to the ongoing
question that is the Lakers. Their shabby play continued into the
new year, with a back-to-back split against the Phoenix Suns last
weekend which left the Lakers at 14--20. Now their stated goal
seems modest: Get to .500 by the All-Star break. That would
require 10 wins in the next 13 games, and nothing the
purple-and-gold--in 10th place in the Western Conference at
week's end--has done so far indicates it will play that well.
But Jackson's task goes beyond numbers: He must restore
equanimity to a team that seems ready to implode. Bryant, an
island unto himself, has stung his teammates with insults about
their play, even as his own, while often incandescent, has
occasionally been an impediment, given his tendency to try to win
games by himself. O'Neal, who started this mess by waiting until
Sept. 11 to have his arthritic right big toe surgically repaired
and missed the first 12 games, has been frustrated with
everyone's performance, including his own. The Other Lakers, that
faceless mass that isn't Shaq and Kobe, are playing skittishly
and are sick of hearing--particularly from Shaq and Kobe--that
it's all their fault. This is not a team in harmonic convergence.
Explaining the Lakers' deficiencies seemingly requires a single
compound sentence: Shaq is only about 80% recovered from his
surgery, and the entire team is shooting poorly . But it goes
much deeper than that. Though they rebounded with a 109--97
victory over the Suns on Sunday night at the Staples Center, the
Lakers' dreadful performance in a 107--93 loss at Phoenix last
Saturday offered a microcosm of the season. Bryant (37 points on
32 shots) and O'Neal (25 on 18) attempted 55% of the field goals
and scored 67% of the points. The outside marksmanship was beyond
atrocious: Los Angeles was 2 of 21 on three-pointers, with Bryant
clanging all eight of his attempts and forward Rick Fox all six
of his. The Lakers lost most of the loose-ball scrambles, got
outrebounded by a smaller team and made a litany of dumb
mistakes: turnovers against token pressure, two lane violations
on free throws, an illegal-defense technical with three seconds
on the shot clock. They even allowed Casey Jacobsen (Casey
Jacobsen!) to beat them downcourt for a dunk.
It's almost painful these days to watch the play of Fox, who
wants only to do what's best for the team but can't seem to do
anything right. Nobody seemed to have a solution, least of all
O'Neal, who walked out of the locker room grumbling, "Two of 21
on threes," as if that explained everything. It didn't explain
the dunk he missed or his porous defense, which helped allow
6'10" rookie Amare Stoudemire rack up 17 points and nonscorers Bo
Outlaw, Scott Williams and Jake Voskuhl to combine for 22.
Facing far less dire prospects in years past, L.A. could depend
on general manager Jerry West (now running the Memphis Grizzlies)
to strike a brilliant deal. Perhaps West would've broken up this
aging unit before the season. But the Lakers, for the most part,
have stood pat, even as the Sacramento Kings, stronger from top
to bottom than Los Angeles, plugged a hole last month by signing
free agent Jimmy Jackson, an experienced swingman. And though
Phil Jackson said last week that he needs new blood, particularly
more speed in the backcourt, West's successor, Mitch Kupchak,
will have a hard time accommodating him. "None of their players
except Kobe and Shaq has much trade value," says one Western
Conference G.M., "and nobody's going to just hand something to
the three-time champions."
It no longer seems likely that the Lakers will coast into winning
mode; Jackson is going to have to do something to get them there.
He has already suffered strategic setbacks. Jackson wanted the
Lakers to fast-break more than in recent years, utilizing a
"push" guard to jet the ball upcourt and have the other players
follow in lanes. They didn't feel comfortable running. Jackson
wanted Bryant to operate more from the wing, as Jordan used to do
in Chicago, rather than from the top. Teams have applied pressure
to force Bryant to bring the ball up, then kept him in the middle
of the court. Jackson wanted his players to adhere to the
triangle scheme rather than let Bryant operate as an independent
agent. The Lakers continued to defer to Kobe. Jackson wanted the
players to reestablish themselves as gritty defenders. O'Neal is
not physically ready to give backbone to the D.
Jackson has been hesitant to take more radical measures because,
he says, "you don't want to look like you're going off the deep
end." As of Monday, though, he was toying with the idea of
returning to a training-camp-style two workouts per day on off
days in January. (The game schedule is light and could
accommodate it.) And he has gotten more animated in recent weeks,
expressing his frustration during timeouts and aiming some of his
bile at his superstars.
"Our leaders haven't done a good job of leading," Jackson says.
"That means Shaq, Kobe and me." He will not get specific other
than to criticize himself for "not being hard enough on these
guys, not being enough of a disciplinarian and a coach." Sources
within the team say he is upset at Bryant for getting far too
personal in his verbal bashing of his teammates, and at
Shaq--always more of a one-of-the-boys diplomat than Bryant--for
not gathering this fragile corps in his Big Daddy arms and
leading them in Kumbaya. At one point the Big Conciliator even
went at his teammates, uttering his now infamous comment to
reporters, "Talk to the motherf-----s that ain't doing nothing."
O'Neal, who increasingly keeps his own counsel--his Dec. 26
wedding to Shaunie Nelson, the mother of two of his children, was
relatively hush-hush in the Land of the Popping Flashbulb--has
been detached this season; one Laker describes his attitude as
"flat." He has also never adequately explained why he waited to
get surgery on his toe. Everyone thought O'Neal would have the
operation early enough to be ready at the start of the season,
especially after Jackson told his players precisely that in a
letter over the summer.
In Shaq's absence Bryant desperately wanted the Lakers to be at
least .500, and he grew frustrated during their 3--9 start. What
should he do? Try to win games himself? Or give his supporting
cast the floor? He tried both, and neither worked as L.A. shot
like a grade school team. The misfiring continued even after
O'Neal returned to the lineup on Nov. 22. Two weeks later the
Lakers rallied from a 30-point deficit to beat the Dallas
Mavericks 105--103 at the Staples Center. Not only did this not
turn out to be the catalyst for a turnaround, but it also exposed
a simmering subplot of the season--i.e., that Bryant was fed up
with his teammates' deficiencies. He had all but stopped shooting
by the third quarter. "What's the matter with you?" O'Neal asked
"Well, they're bitching and moaning that they want more shots,"
replied Bryant, "so let them shoot."
O'Neal told Jackson about it, and the coach had to confront
Bryant, who then hit all eight of his fourth-quarter shots and
scored 21 points to lead the comeback. No matter how peeved
Jordan was during his nontitle years in Chicago, he never stopped
shooting to prove a point.
By that time Bryant, passionately competitive, had torched his
teammates in public and said even worse in private, asserting
that, Shaq excepted, Jordan had a far better supporting cast even
in his early years. "Kobe poisoned the atmosphere with his
comments," says one Laker. Bryant's teammates accepted the
criticism early but then started to lash back. Backup guard Brian
Shaw, a respected 14-year veteran, expressed the supporting
cast's point of view, saying, in effect, "You guys [Bryant and
O'Neal] get 50 shots a game, and we as a team get only 80 or 85,
so how can it be all our fault? Kobe, you criticize your
teammates, and that puts a ton of pressure on a guy every time he
catches a pass, because if he doesn't hit it, it's, 'Hey, f---in'
make the shot.'"
In Bryant's defense, he does have an inordinate amount of
responsibility within the Lakers' offense and his teammates do
often call on him to bail them out. It's hard to imagine how bad
Los Angeles would be this season if the 24-year-old
Bryant--playing 41.7 minutes a game despite sprains to both
ankles, tendinitis in the knees, a chipped tooth and a badly
bruised shin--had missed long stretches of games.
There is more than enough time for the Lakers to put it back
together, of course, especially if Shaq is as dominant as he was
on Sunday, when he had 36 points, 16 rebounds and four blocked
shots. But how the mighty have fallen: Jackson must now try to
angle for the eighth spot in the playoffs ("which are all about
momentum," he says), and that would mean muscling past
on-the-bubble teams such as the Seattle SuperSonics, the
Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets. The Utah Jazz
needed a 44--38 record to grab the eighth seed last season; to
equal that Los Angeles would have to play at a .625 clip (30--18)
the rest of the way.
As the Lakers have explained ad nauseam, the surest remedy is to
start hitting the shots they routinely hit during the
championship seasons. But L.A. must add another dimension to its
attack. O'Neal slamming down an uncontested dunk notwithstanding,
the Lakers get fewer easy baskets than almost any team in the
league. They need to run and create more opportunities with
defensive pressure, even if that means giving more minutes to
rookie guard Kareem Rush and reserve forward Mark Madsen.
Jackson is the man who once brought Kobe and Shaq together; now
he needs to work harder than ever to bring them back to the rest
of the team. There's no doubt that watching the Lakers grow apart
has been the hardest thing Jackson has experienced as a coach.
"If anything should be strong, it should be our trust, our
teamwork and our esprit de corps," he says. "But those things
have been ravaged, and that's not something you would imagine
would happen to a group of guys who have been through what we've
been through. The real question is: Are these guys sick and tired
of playing with each other and putting up with each others'
idiosyncratic behavior, which is part of what you do when you're
on a team?"
And the answer?
Jackson thinks for a moment. "Well," he says, "at this point it
looks like they're sick and tired of playing with each other."
Don't Blame It on Them
The Lakers are asking more of their three oldest supporting cast
members--and they're delivering. Despite averaging far more
minutes than in any of L.A.'s last three championship years, at
week's end Rick Fox, 33, Robert Horry, 32, and Brian Shaw, 36,
had maintained their collective marksmanship from the field.
1999--00 22.2 43.8
2000--01 20.1 38.7
2001--02 26.4 39.8
2002--03 31.6 39.9
1999--00 18.0 41.4
2000--01 27.9 44.4
2001--02 27.9 42.1
2002--03 32.8 39.8
1999--00 16.9 38.2
2000--01 22.9 39.9
2001--02 10.9 35.3
2002--03 17.5 41.6
TOTALS MPG FG%
1999--00 57.1 41.3%
2000--01 70.9 41.6%
2001--02 65.2 40.3%
2002--03 81.9 40.3%