Elevated by the outsized play of Shaquille O'Neal, the Lakers are looking down on the rest of the NBA
Issue date: January 17, 2000
It is apparently time to make a new entry in the Dictionary of Sports Nicknames, right after Big Country and Big Daddy and just before Big Unit. Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal sauntered through the locker room at the Staples Center last week and declared that he had dubbed himself Big Stock Exchange. When someone asked the inevitable question -- why? -- a broad smile spread across his face. "Numbers, baby," he said. "Numbers."
The moniker may not stick, which won't bother O'Neal, who gives himself a new one almost daily. Thanks to Big Stock Exchange and a new dedication to defense inspired by coach Phil Jackson, the market is Bullish on the Lakers, who are flourishing the way Jordan & Co. once did. Through Sunday, Los Angeles had ridden a 14-game winning streak -- capped by a comeback from a 19-point deficit for a 110-100 victory over the SuperSonics in Seattle -- to a league-best 29-5 record, and O'Neal was laying waste to any unfortunate center who wandered into his path. His scoring average of 27.8 was tied for second in the league, he was shooting a second-best 57.6% from the floor, he led the NBA with 14.5 rebounds per game, and, most significant, he was averaging 3.18 blocks, his most since he was a rookie. "I definitely think they're the favorites to win the championship," says Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown. "Kobe Bryant is playing at a high level, Glen Rice is playing at a high level, and Shaq is playing off the charts."
But talk of a title in January is especially premature when it involves the Lakers, who have made a habit of sizzling in the regular season and then flaming out in the playoffs. In 1997-98 they opened with 11 straight victories and went on to win the Pacific Division with a record of 61-21, only to be swept by the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference finals. Last season they were wiped out in four straight in the second round by the San Antonio Spurs. "With our history we can put up all the numbers we want, and no one is going to take us seriously until we do it in the playoffs," says forward Rick Fox.
There's no denying, however, that the Lakers' success is built on a firmer foundation than in previous years. Even the sometimes shaky relationship between O'Neal and Bryant, the spectacular shooting guard, has never been better. The two were watching television in the locker room before a game last week when Bryant commented on how silly the commercial they had just seen was. "That was almost as bad as you and Hakeem on those little bikes," Bryant told O'Neal, referring to a fast-food commercial Shaq made with Hakeem Olajuwon a few years ago.
"Hey, that won awards," O'Neal said, laughing. "It wasn't as bad as you in that one where you wore that cook's uniform." Bryant donned an apron in a recent soft-drink ad. "'If I was a cook, would you care what I drink?'" O'Neal said, mimicking Bryant in the commercial. On they went, two stars good-naturedly needling each other about their thespian turns.
With the notable exception of his abysmal free throw shooting -- 44.9% at week's end -- there is nothing about O'Neal's primary career to poke fun at these days. He is almost unanimously thought to be playing his best basketball since he entered the league. The only dissenting opinion comes from Shaq himself. "I played better my second year," he says, referring to 1993-94, when he averaged 29.3 points, 13.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks and finished fourth in the MVP balloting. "After that year I got my first taste of being injured, and I was a couple of steps slow. The last couple of years I've had stomach injuries that kept me from doing a lot of things defensively that I used to do. Now I'm 100 percent, and I'm getting back to where I was early in my career."
O'Neal might have been better then, but so was the competition, which leads to a frightening thought: Even though he has been abusing backboards and opponents for seven years, even though he has career averages of 27.1 points and 12.2 rebounds, the era of O'Neal's true dominance might just be starting. When he and Alonzo Mourning broke into the league, the centers who were at or near the top of their games included Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo, Rik Smits and Brad Daugherty. Today Daugherty is retired and Olajuwon, Ewing, Robinson and Smits are in varying stages of decline. The number of traditional back-to-the-basket pivotmen is dwindling as more teams turn, by necessity, to glorified power forwards to man the middle, which is like offering bite-sized snacks to the 7'1" O'Neal. After watching him rack up 22 points and 24 rebounds against 6'9", 206-pound Jerome Williams of the Detroit Pistons on Dec. 12, Pistons coach Alvin Gentry said, "That's not fair. Shaq eats more for lunch than Jerome weighs."
You could argue that O'Neal has to face only four topflight pivots who are in their prime: the Spurs' Tim Duncan, the Atlanta Hawks' Mutombo, the Miami Heat's Mourning and the Sacramento Kings' Vlade Divac. More often he has his way with centers who lack either the bulk or the quickness -- or both -- to offer much more than token resistance. No player in the NBA is so often hacked as a last resort, and not just because of his free throw woes. In a 118-101 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 5, O'Neal was the main reason that the lead-footed Michael Olowokandi fouled out in just 18 minutes. O'Neal treated Olowokandi's matchstick-thin backup, 7'3", 212-pound Keith Closs, the way a wrecking ball treats a window pane. He bulled his way through Closs for prime post-up position and then turned and dropped the ball in the net as casually as if he were placing a book on a shelf, finishing with 40 points and 19 rebounds.
It is that apparent ease that has caused O'Neal's superiority to be taken for granted. While acrobatic slashers such as Bryant and the Toronto Raptors' Vince Carter seem to create a new move every time they take to the air, there is a repetitiveness to O'Neal's dominance that is almost numbing. Amid the aerial spectacle presented each night by the league's young stars, it's easy to forget that dumping the ball inside to Shaq is as sure an offensive play as there is in the league.
O'Neal has proved this year that his game is also adaptable, readily adjusting to the triangle offense installed by Jackson and assistant Tex Winter. The system calls for Shaq to find cutters with his passes, which accounts for the modest rise in his assists. (He's averaging more than three for only the second time in his career.) The triangle's spacing and ball movement also have allowed O'Neal to get even better low-post position because it is harder for defenses to sag on him. "This is an offense that should enhance the abilities of a dominant center, not take away from them," says Winter.
But the most pronounced difference in O'Neal's -- and L.A.'s -- game this season is on defense. Until this year O'Neal hadn't averaged more than three blocks since his rookie season, having swatted a career-low 1.67 a game in 1998-99. His renewed propensity for rejecting shots has helped make his teammates better defenders. The Lakers gave up 96.0 points per game last year, which ranked them 25th in the league. This season, even as rules changes have increased scoring, they're allowing 90.4 -- fifth best. "We can really be aggressive knowing Shaq's back there to clean up anything that gets by us," says Rice, L.A.'s sharpshooting small forward. "We can take things from teams on the perimeter and force them to go into the lane knowing the big fella will be there for us."
There are three reasons for O'Neal's surge in swats: His nagging injuries have fully healed, he has trimmed down (to close to his listed weight of 315), and Jackson has demanded it of him. Jackson has an air of authority that his predecessors with the Lakers, Del Harris and Kurt Rambis, didn't; it's apparent that O'Neal is playing for the first coach who has commanded his complete respect. He has said that Jackson reminds him of his stepfather, Phil Harrison, a retired Army sergeant, in the discipline he imposes. Jackson's six championships with the Bulls don't hurt, either. "I went out to see him in Montana before the season, and I saw the sun hitting all those trophies," says O'Neal. "It was like, bling, bling, bling, bling, bling, bling. When a man with his track record asks you to do something, you do it."
In a way, the Lakers' defensive improvement leaves no doubt that they didn't come close to getting the most out of their talent in the past. There is no equivalent to the triangle on defense, no new system or philosophy. Jackson realizes he doesn't have the kind of athletes to apply the perimeter pressure that his Bulls could. In fact, the Lakers don't have great individual defenders -- they traded their only exceptional one, forward Eddie Jones, to get Rice from the Charlotte Hornets last season -- though adding the savvy of forward A.C. Green and guard Ron Harper has helped their team D. "There's no big secret to how we've done it," says Bryant. "We're just working harder. We're quicker to rotate when someone gets beat. We fight through screens a little harder."
Jackson hasn't used any of his favorite stratagems for manipulating players that he employed in his days with the Bulls. "He hasn't handed out books for the players to read or spliced scenes from movies into the game films," says Bryant. Jackson doesn't need those tricks, at least not yet, because he can motivate his team by just walking into the locker room. On Jan. 4, after the Lakers allowed the Clippers to score 61 points in the first half, Jackson gave his team a brief but stern address. "I told them I was looking for players interested in investing the game with some emotion and energy," he says. Left unsaid, but understood, was that he would be willing to sit the starters if they didn't prove to be those players. The Lakers responded by limiting the Clippers to 37 second-half points and winning 122-98.
"When Phil Jackson tells you to defend the pick-and-roll a certain way, you do it because he's proven he knows what he's talking about, and you know you'll be sitting next to him if you don't do it that way," says O'Neal. "Guys know that listening to him could get us over the hump. If we don't win now, we won't have any excuses."
The prime objective for Jackson has been to run a tighter ship. He set the tone early by saying that O'Neal, who reported to camp a good 15 pounds over his listed weight, needed to be lighter and in better condition. Jackson has soft-pedaled the issue since, but it is probably no coincidence that he has been giving O'Neal heavy minutes (39.1 a game) to help him shed pounds. That approach has paid off, though the added playing time for O'Neal also points up one of the Lakers' weaknesses -- they lack a genuine power forward or backup center to help him shoulder the burden on the boards. Green and Robert Horry have done their best, but Green is 36, and Horry is a small forward playing out of position.
An even bigger trouble spot may be the unresolved status of Rice. He can become a free agent at the end of the season, and Lakers management has shown no willingness to give him the maximum contract, which starts at $14 million per for a player with his years of service. Sources close to Rice say they would not be surprised to see a trade before the Feb. 24 deadline, and Jackson refuses to rule one out. Rumors abound involving forwards P.J. Brown of the Heat, Juwan Howard of the Washington Wizards and Tracy McGrady of the Toronto Raptors. Rice, who has only sporadically looked comfortable in the triangle offense, politely declines to discuss his future, but the Lakers have to decide to take one of two risks: Either tinker with a successful lineup and trade Rice, or keep him for the rest of the season and hope his performance isn't affected by the knowledge that the team doesn't want to re-sign him.
Maybe O'Neal, whose largesse is legendary, can come up with a little bauble to keep Rice's spirits up. He did, after all, give backup point guard Derek Fisher a $5,000 Rolex watch as his secret Santa gift last month, and when O'Neal found out that equipment manager Rudy Garciduenas was driving an old pickup truck last season, he bought him a new one, which Garciduenas adorned with the vanity license plate THNX SHAQ. The best news for the Lakers is that they have three months to pave over potential potholes before the playoffs start. "May and June are the only months that matter," says O'Neal.
Everything else is just numbers, baby.
Issue date: January 17, 2000