|SOS on capsizing Lakers|
By Charley Rosen
Special to Page 2
Instead of riding the crest of their dynasty, the Los Angeles Lakers have unexpectedly sunk to the bottom of the league. Not only are they losing (and losing, and losing), but they're repeatedly getting swamped.
What exactly is going on? Are the Lakers merely treading water? Can their championship hopes be salvaged? Or are they really dead in the water? To find out, let's take a close look at one particular game -- Lakers at Nets on December 19 -- because the macrocosm is always discernible in the microcosm.
But first we have to back up two days and one game -- to the Lakers' 96-80 shipwreck at Minnesota.
Kobe Bryant was fresh from publicly questioning his teammates' talent, commitment to winning, and even their courage. (Shaq, of course, was exempted from these charges.) Bryant believed that he had played his butt off during Shaq's lengthy sojourn on the IL, and he felt betrayed by his teammates' repeated failures to make big shots during that stretch. He viewed their poor shooting as proof of their unworthiness to play alongside his own august personage.
Sure, despite their 3-9 record, the Lakers were competitive sans Shaq and were involved in several tight games. But being a "loser" was galling to Bryant.
Going into the Timberwolves game, the Lakers' record with Shaq was a lackluster 7-6, and Bryant was getting desperate. Something had to be done to perpetuate the Lakers' reign atop the NBA. New blood was needed. Younger legs and hungrier hearts. If the Lakers' front office was reluctant to start wheeling and dealing, then maybe Bryant could goose them along in the right direction.
That's why, in the Minnesota game, Bryant took it upon himself to dramatically expose his teammates' shooting deficiencies -- which he did by attempting only four shots (and one of them a dunk) during the first half. His modus operandi was to abort the triangle offense by dribble-penetrating the lane, thereby causing the Timberwolves' defense to collapse around him, and then kicking out passes to the likes of Rick Fox, Robert Horry and Derek Fisher, who were wide open on the perimeter.
According to Phil Jackson, Bryant seemed to be saying, "Here's a shot for you. Here's a shot for you. Show me you can make one."
Trouble was, with the offense so stagnant, the perimeter players now had no place to move the ball. Their only available options were to take a hasty shot (which runs counter to the principles of the triangle offense), or to put the ball on the floor (which none of them do very well) to try to create something better out of nothing much.
Fisher and Horry missed before Fox canned a jumper, but by then the Timberwolves were triple-teaming Shaq, and in lieu of a rapid-fire-ball-moving offense, everybody was forced to stand around and watch Bryant prove his point -- and the game was lost.
Afterwards, Bryant was widely praised in the media for so unselfishly trying to get his teammates involved. Hogwash! What Bryant really did was force role players into assuming functions they are grossly ill-suited for.
OK, after a team meeting the morning of the Nets game, how would Bryant react?
Jackson has never made a secret of the Lakers' opening gambit: First, establish Shaq in the pivot. If the defense lets him play one-on-one, then Shaq will score dozens of points and foul out several defenders. If Shaq is double-teamed, then the Lakers' cutters will run themselves into layups. (Getting the big man immediately involved in the offense also motivates him to rebound and play defense.)
Secondly, once the defense is "conscious inside," that's the time to unleash Bryant's forays into the paint.
Thirdly, when the defense adjusts to Bryant's penetrations, that's when the ball can be kicked out to the perimeter shooters. And once the ball is out of his hands, Bryant can still be a scoring threat if he continues moving along his prescribed routes -- popping out on the weak side, or curling to the strong side. In fact, it is Bryant's empty-handed movement that keeps the offense rolling and gives the perimeter players a place to move the ball.
This is a significant part of Jackson's system. To measure its value, just add up his rings.
So, let's see exactly how Bryant began the game against New Jersey.
The very first time he touched the ball in the offensive zone, Bryant dribbled, dribbled, dribbled some more, then missed a jumper.
Bryant's second touch was a S/R with Shaq, which resulted in a nonshooting foul against the Nets' young center, Jason Collins.
Third touch -- taking and making a long jumper.
Fourth touch -- dribbling to the foul line, leaving his feet with the full intention of shooting, but failing to shake his defender, Bryant tossed an awkward (and harmless) pass back out to Horry.
Fifth touch -- a missed jumper.
Sixth touch -- more superfluous dribbling, then another aimless pass to the perimeter.
Seventh touch -- a missed shot.
Eighth touch -- a missed shot.
With 4:10 gone in the opening quarter, Shaq had only two touches -- none of them dispensed by Bryant -- and the Lakers trailed by six points. Even worse, the triangle offense had collapsed and Kid Kobe's selfishness had become contagious. There was Samaki Walker not waiting for Shaq to take advantage of a cross-pick set by Fox and hoisting an errant shot instead.
Meanwhile, the Lakers' defensive rotations were painfully slow. And Shaq was so slow off the floor that he was beaten to several rebounds by 6-7 Richard Jefferson and 6-9 Aaron Williams. The Lakers' transition from offense to defense was also too slow. The only quickness in their game was represented by the jumpers they took much too early in the shot clock.
Bryant took a seat at 8:20 in the second quarter, and for a while, the Lakers' offense was sharp and crisp. But Shaq's rubbery legs caused him to miss two easy layups and the Nets' lead grew to 38-25.
The Nets were still in command of the game when a required timeout was called with 1:56 remaining in the half. While the Lakers' coaches caucused to decide on an appropriate strategy, Fisher called his teammates together and tried to pump them up. "Let's go!" he said. "We can play hard for two more minutes, then regroup at the half."
After a mini-rally, the Lakers' halftime deficit was "only" 46-37.
In the second half, Bryant kept firing away (8 for 29 for the game), but the Lakers still managed to close the gap to seven. But the Nets' running game was in high gear -- they scored 28 fast-break points to the Lakers' 13 -- and the game was blown wide open early in the fourth quarter. The final score, 98-71, stood as another humiliating defeat for the once-proud (and still-defending) champions.
Once again, the postgame media reports would praise Bryant -- this time for an heroic effort to win the game by himself.
And yet the questions remain: Why does Bryant so frequently sabotage the Lakers' game plans? Hasn't he learned the lessons of the team's triple titles?
The answers have to do with Bryant's fierce competitive nature. (What's won is done. Bryant wants to win now.) And also with his belief that the current Lakers team is simply not good enough to win again.
The night after running aground against the Nets, the Lakers certainly had more wind in their sails in Philadelphia. For Bryant, it was business as usual, short-circuiting the offense and forcing shots -- the main difference being that he shot extremely well. Even though he still exhibited his disdain for making the simple reverse passes required by the offense in favor of always looking for the spectacular touchdown pass, his numbers were awesome -- 16-35 FG, 10-10 FT, 10 A, 44 points.
And the game came down to one play -- Shaq had fouled out and the Lakers trailed 105-104 with 6.2 seconds left in overtime. During a timeout, Phil Jackson diagrammed a side out-of-bounds play which had Rick Fox passing to Robert Horry at the top of the key, receiving a back-pick from Bryant, and then dashing to the basket. The play worked to perfection and there was Fox moving unguarded to the hoop. But Horry's poorly thrown pass was behind Fox, who failed to make the adjustment, and the game was lost -- all because a pair of role players were unable to execute a simple pass-and-catch.
Does that one play prove that Bryant's dissing of his lesser-talented teammates is justifiable? Not necessarily, although a ruthlessly objective evaluation of the rest of the Lakers' roster does indeed indicate that he isn't far off the mark.
Shaq. Currently operating at about 80 percent of his optimum cardiovascular fitness level. There's no way to measure his game reaction level, but at 342 pounds, he is definitely too heavy. Expect Shaq to be at full effectiveness shortly after the New Year.
Derek Fisher. Contrary to what has been previously reported, Laker insiders swear that Fisher, who was never a jet to begin with, has not lost a step. Quick rather than fast, Fisher remains an ideal complementary player who needs the precise structure of the triangle offense to be useful. (Last season, with Shaq and Kobe playing, but with Fisher out, the Lakers were only 17-16.)
Rick Fox. Exhibiting a lack of focus this season. At best, he is inconsistent. Yet his defense remains a necessary component of the team's success.
Robert Horry. In his 11th season at age 32, but counting the playoff games involved during his five championship seasons (two with Houston, three with LA), Horry has also played the equivalent of another two full seasons. That's a lot of miles on his legs. A leansome 6-10, 235 pounds, he is always hurting somewhere. Perhaps his body is breaking down to the extent that he can no longer overcome the chronic distractions of playing with pain.
Samaki Walker. Invariably makes bad decisions with the ball. Struggles with recognition on both ends of court. Playing too many minutes at power forward only to save wear and tear on Horry. Inadequate backup for Shaq.
Brian Shaw. A savvy player with lots of heart. Lost 15 pounds in offseason -- in best shape since he's been in LA. Has lost a half-step, but is so slow that nobody can really tell the difference. Third best postup player on team. Makes big shots. Teammates love him. Fine fourth guard, still effective in spots.
Devean George. Rarely scores in clutch situations. Had impressive performance in Game 4 of Finals when series was virtually over. Re-signing him was a mistake.
Mark Madsen. Always hustles. At 6-9, however, he can't score enough to play power forward, and is too small to play center, his natural position. Also reckless on defense, e.g., not mindful of taking too many unnecessary chances when team is over the foul limit.
Stanislav Medvedenko. Strictly a scorer. Poor defense. Good offensive rebounder, but tends to run out and abandon defensive boards.
Tracy Murray. A spot-shooting specialist who lacks any kind of handle. Soft on defense. Can only be spotted against opponents who can't score with a pencil.
Kareem Rush. A rookie with a nice lefty stroke. Nice feel for the game. A slithery, deceptive driver. Needs more intensity.
The sum total is a talent-depleted roster from 3 through 12. Adding Kid Kobe's passive-aggression and aggressive passivity, it's no wonder that the Lakers are wallowing in perilous waters.
All of which leads to more questions: How did they ever win three championships? Can their season be salvaged? Or has their dynasty already capsized?
Part 2, tomorrow: "And a guard shall lead them."
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."