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AS BAD AS It Gets
Jack McCallum
January 13, 2003
Or can it get worse? Not even a coach who has won nine NBA titles has a solution to the disharmony that's plaguing the Lakers
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January 13, 2003

As Bad As It Gets

Or can it get worse? Not even a coach who has won nine NBA titles has a solution to the disharmony that's plaguing the Lakers

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Don't Blame It on Them

The Lakers are asking more of their three oldest supporting cast members- and they're delivering. Despite averaging far more minutes than in any of L.A.'s last three championship years, at week's end Rick Fox, 33, Robert Horry, 32, and Brian Shaw, 36, had maintained their collective marksmanship from the field.

MPG

FG%

ROBERT HORRY

1999-00

22.2

43.8

2000-01

20.1

38.7

2001-02

26.4

39.8

2002-03

31.6

39.9

RICK FOX

MPG

FG%

1999-00

18.0

41.4

2000-01

27.9

44.4

2001-02

27.9

42.1

2002-03

32.8

39.8

BRIAN SHAW

MPG

FG%

1999-00

16.9

38.2

2000-01

22.9

39.9

2001-02

10.9

35.3

2002-03

17.5

41.6

TOTALS

MPG

FG%

1999-00

57.1

41.3%

2000-01

70.9

41.6%

2001-02

65.2

40.3%

2002-03

81.9

40.3%

The Los Angeles Lakers' season has been more a series of tense therapy sessions than a unified assault on a fourth straight championship. There has been ranting, finger-pointing, anxiety, soul-searching, confusion and hand-wringing. That's quite the psychological smorgasbord—think of an extended encounter between Tony Soprano and Dr. Melfi minus the sexual tension and the aroma of cappicola—but who better to have seated in the therapist's chair than Phil Jackson, the master of the touchy-feely side of sport, a man who has often been accused of stirring up team tension just so he can creatively defuse it? A decade ago in Chicago, Jackson got Michael Jordan to follow his structured offense, and when he came to L.A. in 1999, he got two young head-butters named Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant to stop their squabbling and start winning league titles.

The current challenge must be a piece of cake—right, Phil? "Tell you the truth," says the lanky lord of the NBA championship rings. "I've never gone through anything like this."

So even this Dr. Phil doesn't have a cogent answer to the ongoing question that is the Lakers. Their shabby play continued into the new year, with a back-to-back split against the Phoenix Suns last weekend which left the Lakers at 14-20. Now their stated goal seems modest: Get to .500 by the All-Star break. That would require 10 wins in the next 13 games, and nothing the purple-and-gold—in 10th place in the Western Conference at week's end—has done so far indicates it will play that well.

But Jackson's task goes beyond numbers: He must restore equanimity to a team that seems ready to implode. Bryant, an island unto himself, has stung his teammates with insults about their play, even as his own, while often incandescent, has occasionally been an impediment, given his tendency to try to win games by himself. O'Neal, who started this mess by waiting until Sept. 11 to have his arthritic right big toe surgically repaired and missed the first 12 games, has been frustrated with everyone's performance, including his own. The Other Lakers, that faceless mass that isn't Shaq and Kobe, are playing skittishly and are sick of hearing—particularly from Shaq and Kobe—that it's all their fault. This is not a team in harmonic convergence.

Explaining the Lakers' deficiencies seemingly requires a single compound sentence: Shaq is only about 80% recovered from his surgery, and the entire team is shooting poorly. But it goes much deeper than that. Though they rebounded with a 109-97 victory over the Suns on Sunday night at the Staples Center, the Lakers' dreadful performance in a 107-93 loss at Phoenix last Saturday offered a microcosm of the season. Bryant (37 points on 32 shots) and O'Neal (25 on 18) attempted 55% of the field goals and scored 67% of the points. The outside marksmanship was beyond atrocious: Los Angeles was 2 of 21 on three-pointers, with Bryant clanging all eight of his attempts and forward Rick Fox all six of his. The Lakers lost most of the loose-ball scrambles, got outrebounded by a smaller team and made a litany of dumb mistakes: turnovers against token pressure, two lane violations on free throws, an illegal-defense technical with three seconds on the shot clock. They even allowed Casey Jacobsen ( Casey Jacobsen!) to beat them downcourt for a dunk.

It's almost painful these days to watch the play of Fox, who wants only to do what's best for the team but can't seem to do anything right. Nobody seemed to have a solution, least of all O'Neal, who walked out of the locker room grumbling, "Two of 21 on threes," as if that explained everything. It didn't explain the dunk he missed or his porous defense, which helped allow 6'10" rookie Amare Stoudemire rack up 17 points and nonscorers Bo Outlaw, Scott Williams and Jake Voskuhl to combine for 22.

Facing far less dire prospects in years past, L.A. could depend on general manager Jerry West (now running the Memphis Grizzlies) to strike a brilliant deal. Perhaps West would've broken up this aging unit before the season. But the Lakers, for the most part, have stood pat, even as the Sacramento Kings, stronger from top to bottom than Los Angeles, plugged a hole last month by signing free agent Jimmy Jackson, an experienced swingman. And though Phil Jackson said last week that he needs new blood, particularly more speed in the backcourt, West's successor, Mitch Kupchak, will have a hard time accommodating him. "None of their players except Kobe and Shaq has much trade value," says one Western Conference G.M., "and nobody's going to just hand something to the three-time champions."

It no longer seems likely that the Lakers will coast into winning mode; Jackson is going to have to do something to get them there. He has already suffered strategic setbacks. Jackson wanted the Lakers to fast-break more than in recent years, utilizing a "push" guard to jet the ball upcourt and have the other players follow in lanes. They didn't feel comfortable running. Jackson wanted Bryant to operate more from the wing, as Jordan used to do in Chicago, rather than from the top. Teams have applied pressure to force Bryant to bring the ball up, then kept him in the middle of the court. Jackson wanted his players to adhere to the triangle scheme rather than let Bryant operate as an independent agent. The Lakers continued to defer to Kobe. Jackson wanted the players to reestablish themselves as gritty defenders. O'Neal is not physically ready to give backbone to the D.

Jackson has been hesitant to take more radical measures because, he says, "you don't want to look like you're going off the deep end." As of Monday, though, he was toying with the idea of returning to a training-camp-style two workouts per day on off days in January. (The game schedule is light and could accommodate it.) And he has gotten more animated in recent weeks, expressing his frustration during timeouts and aiming some of his bile at his superstars.

"Our leaders haven't done a good job of leading," Jackson says. "That means Shaq, Kobe and me." He will not get specific other than to criticize himself for "not being hard enough on these guys, not being enough of a disciplinarian and a coach." Sources within the team say he is upset at Bryant for getting far too personal in his verbal bashing of his teammates, and at Shaq—always more of a one-of-the-boys diplomat than Bryant—for not gathering this fragile corps in his Big Daddy arms and leading them in Kumbaya. At one point the Big Conciliator even went at his teammates, uttering his now infamous comment to reporters, "Talk to the mother-f——- s that ain't doing nothing."

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