|How to right the good ship Laker|
By Charley Rosen
Special to Page 2
In Phil Jackson's playing days (1967-78 with New York; 1978-80 with New Jersey), he was the quintessential role player. Defense was his specialty, along with precisely executing the offense. That's why he understands and so greatly values the contributions that players of lesser abilities can make to successful teams. Somebody's got to play defense, rebound, set picks, make the non-assist pass that leads to the assist, fill the lane on the break, be in the right place at the right time, and generally play hard and smart without the ball.
A number of role players supported Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen throughout the Bulls' various championship seasons: Craig Hodges, Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright, John Paxson, Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Luc Longley, Jud Buechler, Bill Wennington, John Salley, even Dennis Rodman. In Los Angeles, the efforts of Shaq and Kobe Bryant have been augmented by the likes of Rick Fox, Robert Horry and Derek Fisher.
But ... to properly utilize these role players, the club's stars must trust them. Trust breeds excellence. Also, the system (on both ends of the court) must be executed with faith and exactitude. These are the lessons to be learned from Phil Jackson's nine championships.
Yes, MJ resisted the triangle offense until he finally "got it." But Pippen got it right away. Yes, Shaq wholeheartedly endorsed the communal aspects of the triangle from the get-go. But Kobe continues to place his own self-aggrandizement above the needs of the team.
"I can score any time I want to," Kobe says. But why, then, is he shooting only 44 percent?
So, can anything be done to put an end to Bryant's one-man mutiny? In truth, Phil Jackson and the Lakers' organization don't have many viable options.
Since Jackson is justly celebrated for being a communicator, the easiest solution to the Lakers' woes would be for the coach and his young star to sit down and have a heart-to-heart. Jackson's arguments are apt to invoke the logic of five-on-five basketball as opposed to one-on-five, an appeal to community values, the dangers of rampant egotism, and the necessity of respecting role players. Unfortunately, three years of Jackson's peaceful attempts at problem solving haven't had any lasting effect on Bryant's personal game plan.
The ultimate leverage that a coach can hold over a player is PT, playing time. When Jackson first took over the Lakers in 1999, he had Bryant on a short string, yanking him to the bench whenever Kobe went off on his own. Three years later, such a tactic is unavailable, because Bryant has become such a superstar. Should Jackson be moved to punish Bryant's misdeeds with bench time, the tumult in the media would overwhelm any of the relevant issues. Instead of focusing on Kobe's responsibility to his team, the spotlight would be turned on the very merits of the triangle offense itself. At the same time, the jock-sniffing Los Angeles sports media would use this eventuality as proof of what they "knew" all along -- that Jackson is essentially a do-nothing coach.
What about a trade, then?
Derek Fisher could have some value. But the likes of Robert Horry, Rick Fox, et al., are more valuable in L.A.'s scheme of things than they would be to any other team and would therefore bring nothing that would improve the Lakers.
Even though Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got traded, and so did Wilt Chamberlain -- twice -- Shaq is literally irreplaceable and virtually untradeable. The only equitable exchange would be Shaq for the Sacramento Kings.
That leaves Bryant.
Ignoring any niceties of salary-cap considerations, the problem here is getting equal talent value. Tracy McGrady isn't nearly as good as Bryant. Grant Hill is too fragile. Jason Kidd is unavailable and, besides, the Lakers would have to totally revamp their team to accommodate Kidd's uptempo talents.
Who else could be the other half of a fantasy trade? Allen Iverson? Even more selfish and undisciplined than Bryant. Vince Carter? Even more immature. Paul Pierce? See Iverson above. Antoine Walker? Too imprecise for the triangle. Tim Duncan is a free-agent-in-waiting. Gary Payton is too old.
Too bad the Lakers' fans would react by burning the Staples Center to the ground. So, too, would Jerry Buss' life be in danger.
Considering that Jackson's contract ends in 2004, if the choice ever came down to either Jackson or Bryant, then the coach (and all of his rings) would undoubtedly be the one to walk the plank.
OK, what about adding some player or other who might be currently unemployed? The only likely candidate here is Horace Grant, who was recently released by the Orlando Magic. Having played for Jackson for six years in Chicago and one in Los Angeles, Grant is thoroughly acquainted with the theory and practice of the triangle offense. He can still stick the jumper from midrange, and can still climb the offensive glass. If, at age 37, his defensive rotations are somewhat tardy, Grant can still defend post-up players as well as anybody in the league. Bringing in Grant would not be a quick fix for all of the Lakers' problems, but it would provide a capable backup for Shaq and some relief for Horry. The bonus in Grant's game is his ability to shut down Chris Webber.
As of yet, the Lakers front office has not initiated any official communications with either Grant or his representatives, simply because they're not ready to make a roster move. To add Grant would necessitate cutting or IL'ing somebody else, so don't be surprised if Stanislav Medvedenko or Tracy Murray goes down with a sprain or a pull, or some other soft-tissue problem.
Besides a biggie to man the front line, the Lakers also need a large, quick guard who can play defense. As it is, Bryant is their only backcourt stopper, and his effectiveness is being impeded by his recent penchant for trying to ambush the passing lanes, gambling for steals, and otherwise looking for defensive shortcuts.
It should be noted that if MJ and Pippen were the mainstays of all six of the championships that Jackson won in Chicago, the supporting players on the first three-peat team (1990-93) were totally replaced on the second three-peat team (1995-98). That's because familiarity often breeds boredom, and it just might be that the thrill is gone and the Lakers are simply tired of seeing each other's faces. If this is the case, then the Lakers are dead in the water.
The easiest solution to the club's current miseries would be for Kobe to be like Mike and come to his senses. Let the system be the system. Submit to it and embrace it. Unfortunately, this is a highly unlikely scenario.
Another unworkable alternative is for Jackson to assume the role of disciplinarian and compel Kobe's obedience. This won't work because a coach cannot be a team's leader. Any discipline imposed by an external force will always be consciously or subconsciously resisted. Authentic, lasting discipline has to be manifested from the inside out and not vice versa. That's why Jackson's entire mode of coaching is based on his players taking personal responsibility for their own actions. The only way the Lakers can save their ship is for one (or more) of the players to step up and assume a forceful leadership role.
Certainly not Shaq. His version of motivating his teammates is to insult them. When his return to active duty failed to move the Lakers out of their doldrums, Shaq said he wanted "eight guys out there with me who want to play." And when approached by the media for his reaction to a Dec. 10 loss to Golden State, Shaq said this: "Go talk to the blankity-blanks that ain't doing nothing. Don't talk to me." After not talking to the media for several days, Shaq admitted that his derogatory remarks were not to be taken seriously -- they were merely an attempt to rouse his teammates into playing with more passion. "When I make my guys mad," he said, "they usually respond."
Brian Shaw has all the right ideas, but lacks the fire to spark his mates. Horry is too light-hearted. Devean George and Mark Madsen are too young, and Tracy Murray just arrived in town. Because Kobe can't discipline himself, his teammates aren't interested in hearing his opinions about what everybody else is doing wrong. That leaves Derek Fisher as the only Laker who can speak to his teammates with authority.
"I'm the one who's got to take the leadership position on this team," Fisher says. "We've simply got to run our offense, and that means everybody. Otherwise we wind up with role players like me having to go one-on-one, and we can't win that way. So it's up to me to get into guys' faces without worrying about hurting their feelings. If that's what it'll take to get us turned around, then that's what I'm going to have to do."
It should be noted that while Kobe disdains the company of most of his teammates, he does feel comfortable with Fisher. In fact, last summer Fisher and Kobe together went through a rigorous program designed to increase the agility of their footwork.
Can Fisher challenge, shame, cajole, or otherwise convince Bryant to walk the walk?
On the other hand, it might very well be that the club has simply gone as far as it can go. In the NBA, the difference between winning and losing is always so incredibly fragile. The physical, emotional and psychological demands of excellence are extremely difficult to maintain over the course of one season (the longest in professional sports), which is why authentic dynasties are so rare. The slightest decrease in speed, reaction time, intensity, will-power and/or mental acuity can mean the end of the ride, and this can happen both suddenly and totally only because the competitive level in the NBA is so fierce.
Will the Lakers continue to sink? Or will they resurrect themselves in time to reclaim the gold and the glory? The odds are that the team's future is in the hands of Derek Fisher, the littlest Laker.
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."