Two stars do not a team make. The Lakers' supporting cast is weaker than it was in the past two seasons.
Horace Grant (who signed with Orlando last summer) brought more to L.A. than the experience of winning three championships in Chicago. Grant was a student of the Lakers' half-court offense, the triangle; he was nearly mistake-free on defense; and he is a deadly jump shooter from the elbow. Samaki Walker, Grant's replacement, is an inconsistent shooter with limited range who has suited up for only 16 playoff games in his five previous seasons. The Lakers were getting steady contributions from off-season pickup Lindsey Hunter, but his shooting touch (38.4%) has gone south, and during the playoffs he will likely be sitting next to Richmond, a onetime great who deserves a better fate than the role that awaits him: butt-slapping cheerleader.
The Lakers answer: Samaki gives us a couple of things Horace couldn't. And in the playoffs we won't go deeper into the rotation than we have to.
Walker, 26, is more active around the basket at both ends than Grant, 36, was (and is), and he's a great finisher. There appear to be no ill effects from last month's dustup between Walker and Bryant (What's up with Kobe?, March 18), and Walker seems to understand his role in the binary star system that governs the Lakers: Thou shalt rebound, defend and not bitch when Shaq and Kobe get most of the shots and all of the attention.
Here's a question to chew on: Who is L.A.'s third-best player? Some say Derek Fisher, the old-school guard with a knack for hitting rainbow jumpers in the playoffs. Some say Fox, the rock-solid defender who looked more swashbuckling (and thus more worthy of the estimable Vanessa Williams) before he sheared his locks. Some say Devean George, the high-flying reserve forward who has found a niche after two seasons of relative anonymity and who this season has shut down, among others, Orlando's Tracy McGrady. The correct answer, though, is 6'10" Robert Horry, that rare mix of perimeter shooter and interior defender. "Robert just land of floats along during the regular season," says Miami Heat forward LaPhonso Ellis. "Then, as soon as playoffs start, he's coming up with key defensive plays, and he's in that corner making deep threes."
Shaq just isn't picky enough. Shaq defends the high pick-and-roll indifferently, making the Lakers susceptible to outside jump shots.
Sore toe or not, Shaq doesn't like to be pulled far from the basket. Thus the Lakers try to force almost every pick-and-roll toward the baseline rather than the middle, making them predictable on defense. The Western teams that seem to present the most formidable challenges have the players to exploit that tendency—Chris Webber and Vlade Divac of the Kings and Dirk Nowitzki and Raef LaFrentz of the Mavericks.
The Lakers answer: We think our 7'1", 335-pound human warehouse is more effective when he's close to the basket.
"If a team tries to draw Shaq out, Jackson will throw some kind of zone at them and force them to make tougher shots," says Houston Rockets center Kevin Willis. Then, too, if no one challenges Shaq in the post, he won't ever get into foul trouble, and it's going to be double-double-Daddy-trouble for 40 minutes a game. Anyway, look for Horry to move out and check the outside threat from a big man; against Dallas, for example, he usually shadows Nowitzki in crunch time.
The wild, wild West is too, too deep. The Lakers' challengers are vastly improved.