Karl Malone wears black toenail polish every game. "Don't read
nothing strange into it," says Malone, smiling. "It's a
superstition thing." During a home "pedicure" several years ago,
his children mischievously applied the stuff, and that night he
put up big numbers for the Utah Jazz. He's been painting 'em
black ever since. ¬∂ The Mailman might want to consider brushing
on a more festive shade for this weekend's start to the NBA
playoffs, in which his Los Angeles Lakers will host a first-round
opponent that as of Monday had not been determined. After all, as
the 40-year-old Malone sets out on his quest for a championship
ring that seemed to be his destiny just five months ago, black is
"No," he says, "I'm sticking with black."
But does such a steadfast attitude prevail among those myriad
observers who had predicted an NBA title for this team? In one of
the most intriguing stretch runs in league history, the Lakers
are struggling to find their rhythm on the court, struggling to
get along with one another off it--a familiar plot line in the
City of Reruns and Endless Syndication--and even struggling to
keep the support of the Staples Center diehards. While the
concerns of the other potential champions can be reduced to a
snapshot or two (Will San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker hit his
jumper? How far can Kevin Garnett carry the Minnesota
Timberwolves?), the troubles of star-studded, star-crossed L.A.
form a Jackson Pollock canvas: mesmerizing, disturbing, complex
to the point of inscrutability.
Despite those woes--and notwithstanding the dethroning of L.A. by
San Antonio last season after a three-year reign--the aura of the
Lakers endures. "Of course they're the one team you don't want to
see," said Portland coach Maurice Cheeks after his Trail Blazers
had drubbed the Purple and Gold 91-80 on April 6 at the Staples
Center. That fear factor may have diminished somewhat on Sunday
at Arco Arena, where the Lakers bowed 102-85 to the Sacramento
Kings, a team they had waxed 115-91 three weeks earlier and one
they've delighted in tormenting over the years. The loss likely
relegated L.A. (54-26) to fourth place in the Western Conference.
Yes, the Lakers are far from the happy, healthy juggernaut that
began the season 18-3. Here are three issues L.A. needs to
resolve if it's to reclaim the crown.
ISSUE NO. 1: THE TRIANGLE
Coach Phil Jackson's vaunted offense isn't working. "It's a whole
different shape at this point," says forward Rick Fox, who missed
the Kings game with a dislocated right thumb, "maybe a pentagon."
That's primarily because point guard Gary Payton clings to his
I'm-in-control style in a system that demands ball movement, and
Bryant continues to take too much on himself. (The triangle is
hardly ideal even for Malone--who had 18 seasons of
pick-and-rolls and cross-screens in Utah--but even he is griping
about his teammates' not running it correctly.)
Payton doesn't deny subverting the geometry. "I'm used to having
the ball and breaking people down off the dribble," Payton says.
"That's just a fact." And it's a fact that the Lakers have
gradually come to accept. But Bryant's penchant for freelancing
remains a source of irritation, and his teammates' grumbling was
loud after Bryant hit only 14 of 49 shots in back-to-back losses
to the Spurs (95-89 on April 4) and the Blazers.
SOLUTION Instead of the Lakers' automatically reading and
reacting based on where the ball is and how the defense is
playing, Jackson will call more plays, including a lot of
pick-and-rolls. Bryant is devastating in that scheme; Payton runs
it well; Shaquille O'Neal is often at his best when he's on the
perimeter and on the move; and after Malone jump-started a draggy
attack with nine key third-quarter points last Friday night in a
103-95 comeback win over the Memphis Grizzlies, he vowed to seek
out more pick-and-roll opportunities.
ISSUE NO. 2: THE DEFENSE
The tendinitis Shaq began feeling in his right knee after he
grabbed 26 rebounds in a 104-103 overtime defeat of the Milwaukee
Bucks on March 21 has limited his mobility, making him even more
reluctant to move away from the basket. And as much as the
presence of four future Hall of Famers can be a boon to the
offense, it can also drag down the D as the stars try to avoid
the foul trouble that would remove them from the court. "We used
to come out real aggressively on defense and set a tone," says
Fox. "That doesn't always happen now."
SOLUTION The Lakers will go to early pick-and-roll reads on
defense so that Malone, for instance, can switch to Shaq's man
and be the one to jump out and defend beyond the free throw line.
And though Payton is a future Hall of Famer and backup Derek
Fisher a 7.4 points-per-game career scorer, Fisher's minutes must
increase because of his defense. There was no more smothering
perimeter defender than Payton in his prime, but the 35-year-old
Glove can no longer wrap himself around quick guards such as
Parker. Fisher, 29, who may be L.A.'s hardest-working player, can
pick up his man at half-court and keep the opposition from
getting seamlessly into its sets.
ISSUE NO. 3: THE DISHARMONY
The sour relationship between Shaq and Kobe often carries over to
the court. When Bryant gets overcreative, O'Neal pouts; when
O'Neal pouts, he doesn't play hard on defense; when he doesn't
play hard on D, a 5'10" point guard like Damon Stoudamire gets to
the basket, as Stoudamire did repeatedly in the Lakers'
atrociously played, oft-booed loss to Portland.
Does Bryant care what Shaq thinks? It doesn't seem so. Kobe is
unwavering in his conviction that he often has to take over
games, preferably in spectacular fashion. In the second quarter
against the Grizzlies, for example, he stepped through a double
team and then, thinking as quickly as any basketball player on
earth, threw a line-drive bullet off the backboard and followed
the deliberate miss for an easy basket. The crowd went wild; his
teammates, for the most part, sat on their hands. Lately Bryant
has been getting in touch with his inner Goodrich, flinging up
lefthanded shots. "Sometimes I just know when to take over," he
said after Friday's win, "and sometimes my teammates tell me to
take over." And sometimes they think, Chill, dude, and play
within the offense.
Payton at times plays a supporting role in Bryant's circus act,
as he did against Memphis, setting up Kobe for another dunk with
a pass off the backboard. The Glove deserves love for keeping his
dissatisfaction with the triangle largely to himself. But anger
and frustration are often written on his expressive face, as they
were last Friday when he sat on the bench while Fisher started
the fourth period of a close game and played almost seven minutes
before Jackson sent Payton back in.
Jackson's influence is not nearly as profound as it used to be
when O'Neal and Bryant were colts learning how to win; now they
have three rings each, and they're all mule. Shaq presents
himself as Jackson's vice president, general, sergeant at arms or
whatever metaphor strikes him that day, but when the Big Mood
Swing is in a funk, even Jackson has a hard time pulling him out
of it. And his relationship with Bryant has never been that
strong. In the first period of the Trail Blazers game, Jackson
snapped at Bryant after removing him from the game for excessive
freelancing, and Kobe snapped back. Don't make too much of it,
but don't make too little, either.
SOLUTION Jackson said last week that he gets paid $75,000 to
$100,000 for schmoozing with corporate types about crisis
management--he's not kidding, by the way--and joked that he will
not impart gratis his strategies for maintaining positive
chemistry. But no coach is better at this sensitive time of the
season. Expect Jackson to continue to use his psychological
ploys, especially with Bryant, defending Kobe's shot selection
when others denigrate it, issuing gentle reproofs when others
declaim his brilliance. At the same time Jackson will tell O'Neal
that it's his team, an assurance he needs from time to time.
The coach will need help from Malone, the new locker room
leader. He's the one who sacrifices the most on offense; the one
who energizes the defense "with his pure physical effort and
presence," as assistant Frank Hamblen puts it; the one who
patiently deconstructs for the media the delicate psyche of this
fascinating team. He is not always happy doing it, and like
everyone else, he has little sway with Bryant.
But if the Mailman doesn't stay the course, the center--not to
mention the Center--will not hold. Things seemed to unravel on
Sunday, when Bryant, perhaps to show his teammates what happens
when he doesn't extend himself on offense, took one first-half
shot and scored only eight points. If the Lakers are going to be
painting the town red (and not black) come mid-June, they have to
decide in a hurry how willing they are to solve their family
When Bryant gets overcreative, O'Neal pouts; when O'Neal pouts,
HE DOESN'T PLAY HARD D.