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Men playing boys

Page 2 columnist

It was not so much a sweep as it was annihilation. Most of us who are serious basketball fans thought that the Spurs-Lakers series would serve as the de facto championship round, the league's two best teams colliding, and the Spurs -- with Tim Duncan and David Robinson -- probably the only team that could stand up to the New Century Lakers of Shaq and Kobe. Instead, the Lakers, playing these last few weeks at a level beyond the expectation of almost anyone in professional basketball, inhaled the Spurs and pushed their current winning streak to 19, 11 in the playoffs.

Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson thought the triangle offense would be perfect for Shaquille O'Neal.
It was almost like watching men playing boys, and it left the San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich making comparisons with General George Armstrong Custer at the Little Big Horn. Or as Johnny Bach, the Washington Wizards assistant coach, and a longtime Phil Jackson assistant, said, "I thought that it would be an epic battle and it was a slaughter."

Let us then recount the brief recent history of the NBA, bridging two centuries:

Scene One: In the spring of 1999, the Spurs swept the Lakers. Duncan looked like the best player in the NBA, or at least the best big man in the NBA, someone with a complete set of skills, a poster boy for a player who spent four full years in college. What was most obvious about him was his amazing footwork, and thus the ability to move with the ball.

By contrast, Shaquille O'Neal seemed like the poster boy for the younger NBA generation, someone who was not that coachable, a player who had received too much too soon in terms of salary, endorsements, and general nonbasketball pop culture fame. Certainly. I had that view of him -- and I quoted in one of my books his dissent from the idea that he was not a winner -- he had won everywhere, he said, except in college and the pros.

Scene Two: In the fall of 1999, Phil Jackson, bearer of six rings from his Jordan-Pippen years, went to Los Angeles, a job he badly wanted as the Chicago years came to a melancholy close. The New Jersey Nets' owners, with a talented young team, offered him more money at first, but he wanted the Laker job and a chance to coach Shaq. He took with him his trusted longtime assistant coaches, and installed the triangle offense. He had spent time with Shaq a few years earlier in Brazil, liked him, and was impressed by his potential coachability. The triangle offense, with proper spacing, he believed, was perfect for Shaq.

The meeting in Brazil must have gone well: Shaq, beginning to flounder in his professional career, had suggested to Jerry West that Jackson might be just the right coach for him. That year the Lakers went on to win the championship. They did not do it majestically, however; indeed there was a sense in the Portland and Indiana rounds that they were perilously close to unraveling under pressure. Their sheer talent seemed greater than their internal cohesion and toughness of mind. They won, but there was still an aura of fragility to them: I went away thinking that if Portland were just a touch tougher mentally, or Indiana a bit more talented, either might have beaten Los Angeles.

A number of things, however, were noticeable in that season. Jackson had already improved Shaq's game. He seemed to have a much better sense of the game, and to be playing with far greater discipline, with very little waste, save perhaps his free throws. The spacing of the Lakers on offense was an obvious improvement, and worked to Shaq's advantage. The triangle offense got him the ball where he wanted it, and showed him to advantage as a passer. His assists more than doubled from 114 to 299.

Kobe Bryant looked impressive too. His defense was vastly improved, and that had been a serious question hanging over him. Unlike Michael Jordan, he did not have three years at a place like Chapel Hill to learn to play defense under the best coaches in the country, and it is hard to improve on defense once you're in the NBA and making millions of dollars and appearing on highlight clips every night. But in the 1999-2000 season, at age of 21, Kobe made all-defensive first team; Michael, because the comparisons are inevitable and are helpful in tracking Kobe's surprising maturity as a professional player, made it in his fourth season, at the age of 25.

Scene Three: The NBA regular season, 2000-2001. There are moments when the Lakers look unbeatable, stronger and tougher than last year, and moments when they seem to unravel. Internal problems exist and there seem to be, as often happens in the upper levels of the NBA, problems of the psyche rather than problems of talent. Shaq had reported out of shape, much too heavy. That irritated Kobe who wanted to continue where they left off the previous season. The tensions are obvious, and Kobe often seems to be trying to do too much, playing outside the Laker offense; the other Laker players, in turn, are clearly irritated with Kobe. In midseason the Lakers seem quite dysfunctional. But somewhere near the end of the season Kobe and Shaq patch things up, and the Lakers go on a roll, winning their last eight.

Shaquille O'Neal
Shaquille O'Neal is playing at a level that sets him apart from other contemporary players.
Scene Four: The Lakers terrorize their opponents in the playoffs, absolutely dominating everyone in their path. The key, as in the past with Phil Jackson teams, is fierce defense, which takes away what the other teams hope to do, breaks their spirit, and then opens it up for Los Angeles on offense. Earlier in the season, with Glen Rice gone, there are questions -- who the third scorer will be and which Robert Horry will show up each night.

But even as the Lakers struggle in midseason, other players begin to step up and by the end of the season with Derek Fisher back, the roles finally seem set. Horace Grant, playing alongside Shaq, seems younger than his 35 years, and gives the Lakers something they badly lacked a year earlier, a genuine power forward. The team in general seems much tougher of mind: Everyone seems to know his role, and what is expected of him on a given night -- and what to do if one of the stars is a bit off.

Fisher becomes a considerable surprise. Not that good a shooter earlier in his career, he misses 62 games in this season with a broken foot. But while he rehabilitates his foot, he hires his own shooting coach and works on his outside shot; gradually he became a much improved outside shooter. Since he plays alongside Shaq and Kobe, Fisher rarely draws too much defensive attention and he tends to get very good looks at the basket.

  Shaq is playing at a level that sets him apart from other contemporary players. He wastes little energy, has a rare combination of awesome muscle and power and yet a surprisingly soft shot. No one has ever been bigger, stronger, and more agile. His moves to the basket are ferocious -- he is so big and so quick that it is almost impossible to stop him.  

The sum of what they are doing is awesome. Portland, with perhaps more genuine talent than Los Angeles, two deep at every position, is disorganized, the roles are never quite certain, and it readily self-destructs. A wonderful Sacramento team, one that is a sheer pleasure to watch, cannot win a game. Then San Antonio disappears in the final two games of a four-game set. All of this leaves the rest of the league wondering: Who can beat the Lakers if they continue to play at this level and no one is injured. They are, after all, very young. Are we talking embryonic dynasty?

Let us, before passing on, look then at the three principals in this.

  • First Shaq. He is playing at a level that sets him apart from other contemporary players. He made the immensely gifted Tim Duncan look less like one of the more dominating big men in the league than an agile small forward in those four games. He wastes little energy, has a rare combination of awesome muscle and power and yet a surprisingly soft shot. No one has ever been bigger, stronger, and more agile. If his footwork was missing before, or if the offenses he played in did not display it properly, then it is clearly there for all to see now. His moves to the basket are ferocious -- he is so big and so quick that it is almost impossible to stop him. He is, as Doug Collins noted, probably the hardest player to referee in the league, because he is so big and quick-- is he fouling on his moves to the basket or is he being fouled, or is it always a combination of both?

    He physically wears down opposing centers. The Lakers, not surprisingly always seem fresher in the fourth quarter than their opponents. The only comparison in terms of a big man dominating the game is with Wilt Chamberlain. But Shaq seems infinitely more comfortable with his size and with playing the role of Goliath than Wilt. Chamberlain's signature shot was essentially a fallaway; Shaq, by contrast, attacks the basket with a certain violence on almost every move.

    He tends to get up for big games and for the playoffs; it is possible that he lacks challenges in the regular season and tends to take it somewhat for granted. If that is true, then it is possible that his signature now will be that he plays at a significantly higher level of concentration and effort in the playoffs. If so, heaven help the rest of the NBA.

  • Kobe. Some seven years ago, relatively early in his championship run, I wrote an article on Michael Jordan for Sports Illustrated, and I talked with Phil Jackson about the progression of players who preceded Michael in playing above the rim. We spoke of their constantly expanding range of abilities -- Elgin Baylor, Connie Hawkins, Julius Erving, and finally Michael. The wonderful thing about all that lineage, Phil said, is that it makes you wonder about who the next in line will be, and what even better moves he will make.

    It is quite possible that he is now coaching the next in line of prototypes. Kobe, it should be noted, is not the next Michael Jordan -- the Michael Jordan commercial phenomenon was something of a fluke. But he may be something just as good, the first Kobe Bryant. There are differences in their games: Michael was simply more muscular and more powerful in his drives to the basket. He punished defenders in the process. If Kobe punishes them it is more likely psychological than physical -- he is slimmer than Michael, and if he lacks the pure force of an attacking Jordan, then there is a degree of flex, and an ability to create angles and lanes on the way to the basket that did not seem to exist before he invented them, lanes and angles even Michael might have lacked.

    Kobe also has, I think, a better jump shot this early in his career than Michael had at a comparable moment in his. Keep in mind their actuarial tables: Michael had played one full professional season when he was 22; at the same age Kobe has completed five, and his game has become more complete in each one.

  • Phil Jackson. He is smart, talented, and of course, lucky. In both Chicago and Los Angeles, he not only inherited wonderful players, but he inherited them at precisely the right moment, when they were frustrated with losing, and with the backchannel word in the league that they were stars but not winners. Thus were they eager to listen to him on his arrival. But he is also an immensely talented NBA coach, psychologically as strong and acute as any person I've ever dealt with in any field -- politics, media and sports. He knows what to say and what not to say. He knows when not to talk. Perhaps most important in so volatile a world, he knows which battles to walk away from.

    In some ways, he is a minimalist on the bench. When his team is playing poorly, even in critical games, he is slower than almost any coach in the league to call timeouts; he assumes that his players will sense what they're doing wrong and will make the corrections themselves. What he does with his players, who have always had their own way since they entered big-time basketball, is something quite unusual -- he tries to let them understand the consequences of their deeds and decisions. The NBA, after all is a world where the best players, all of them young and all of them rich, are always shielded from the consequences of their decisions by agents, hangers-on and in many cases, the coaches and the owners.

    Kobe Bryant
    Kobe Bryant seems to have realized what a good thing he's got with Shaq and the Lakers.
    He does not overcoach. He concentrates on a few critical things, he tries to understand what makes his players tick emotionally, and what it is they most want out of the game. He does this with considerable skill, trying to do it -- at least seemingly -- on their terms, not his. He understands what it is that drives them and creates both their strengths and their vulnerabilities, and blends his needs to theirs.

    This year in the winter of the Lakers' discontent, he was trying to show them on a larger scale what the consequences were if they didn't listen and didn't find common purpose. If they had to suffer a few defeats two-thirds of the way through the season on the way to discovering the price of doing it wrong, so be it. The Lakers, as currently constituted, need home-court advantage less than other teams. If they have their game, it doesn't really matter where they play.

    With Kobe, young and somewhat rebellious and irritated with Shaq's lack of conditioning, Jackson had to remind him of his essential good fortune, of how lucky he was to be playing alongside a great center, and the pounding that Allen Iverson (and, to some degree, Michael) had to take because they did not have a big man as a protector who altered the opposing defenses and simply made things easier for a smaller backcourt man. Yes, if Kobe wanted a trade that badly -- if he was that unhappy -- Phil could arrange a trade -- but a trade had certain consequences. There might be more pounding, fewer titles, and some of the things he thought were problems in Los Angeles might move with him to a new venue, and he might find fewer benefits.

      Kobe, it should be noted, is not the next Michael Jordan -- the Michael Jordan commercial phenomenon was something of a fluke. But he may be something just as good, the first Kobe Bryant.  

    Jackson has always dealt shrewdly with his best players: He knew enough never to ask Michael for anything away from the game which would have diminished his authority as a coach -- no signed sneakers for an auction at one of his kids' schools. He dealt skillfully with Scottie Pippen's failure to go into a crucial playoff game by letting his players sort it out among themselves. He managed to handle Dennis Rodman, when the Bulls badly needed a power forward, by going first to Jordan and Pippen, and getting their approval for the move, knowing that Dennis would need a separate set of rules -- and that on a veteran team like the Bulls, if Michael and Scottie said it was OK, it would be OK.

    On the Lakers it has been more of the same. He has understood what it is that both Shaq and Kobe need and want, he has understood as in Chicago that a team has to grow by itself, that there is only so much a coach can say and do -- that it has to come from inside them. He will, as Johnny Bach once noted, step in and settle issues, but they have to be big and he knows it's better if the players do it themselves.

    On his bench he is smart enough to go for wisdom and experience rather than pure talent, knowing the value of veteran players who are de facto coaches. He has an innate sense of the texture and tempo of a long season, and just how much pressure you can apply at any given time. He is brilliant at dealing with a long, bone-crushing schedule, and defusing the potential tensions among surprisingly fragile, high-priced, ego-driven athletes.

    The difference in the Lakers since he got there is palpable, and not surprisingly the emotional coherence of the Lakers seems to be on the ascent, as it becomes more and more his team, with his players. What looked strong but fragile a year ago looks overpowering this year.

    As I write, Milwaukee and Philadelphia are struggling for the dubious right to meet Los Angeles in the finals. I realize that the great thing in all sports is that the games actually have to be played, that it doesn't matter who looks overpowering on paper, but this may be the year that proves Yogi Berra wrong -- it may be over before it's over.

    Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 bestsellers, including Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, The Reckoning and Summer of '49, writes a bi-weekly column for Page 2.

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