Karl Malone wears black toenail polish every game. "Don't read nothing strange into it," says Malone, smiling. "It's a superstition thing." During a home "pedicure" several years ago, his children mischievously applied the stuff, and that night he put up big numbers for the Utah Jazz. He's been painting 'em black ever since. � The Mailman might want to consider brushing on a more festive shade for this weekend's start to the NBA playoffs, in which his Los Angeles Lakers will host a first-round opponent that as of Monday had not been determined. After all, as the 40-year-old Malone sets out on his quest for a championship ring that seemed to be his destiny just five months ago, black is rather funereal. "No," he says, "I'm sticking with black."
But does such a steadfast attitude prevail among those myriad observers who had predicted an NBA title for this team? In one of the most intriguing stretch runs in league history, the Lakers are struggling to find their rhythm on the court, struggling to get along with one another off it—a familiar plot line in the City of Reruns and Endless Syndication—and even struggling to keep the support of the Staples Center diehards. While the concerns of the other potential champions can be reduced to a snapshot or two (Will San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker hit his jumper? How far can Kevin Garnett carry the Minnesota Timberwolves?), the troubles of star-studded, star-crossed L.A. form a Jackson Pollock canvas: mesmerizing, disturbing, complex to the point of inscrutability.
Despite those woes—and notwithstanding the dethroning of L.A. by San Antonio last season after a three-year reign—the aura of the Lakers endures. "Of course they're the one team you don't want to see," said Portland coach Maurice Cheeks after his Trail Blazers had drubbed the Purple and Gold 91-80 on April 6 at the Staples Center. That fear factor may have diminished somewhat on Sunday at Arco Arena, where the Lakers bowed 102-85 to the Sacramento Kings, a team they had waxed 115-91 three weeks earlier and one they've delighted in tormenting over the years. The loss likely relegated L.A. (54-26) to fourth place in the Western Conference.
Yes, the Lakers are far from the happy, healthy juggernaut that began the season 18-3. Here are three issues L.A. needs to resolve if it's to reclaim the crown.
ISSUE NO. 1: THE TRIANGLE
Coach Phil Jackson's vaunted offense isn't working. "It's a whole different shape at this point," says forward Rick Fox, who missed the Kings game with a dislocated right thumb, "maybe a pentagon." That's primarily because point guard Gary Payton clings to his I'm-in-control style in a system that demands ball movement, and Bryant continues to take too much on himself. (The triangle is hardly ideal even for Malone—who had 18 seasons of pick-and-rolls and cross-screens in Utah—but even he is griping about his teammates' not running it correctly.)
Payton doesn't deny subverting the geometry. "I'm used to having the ball and breaking people down off the dribble," Payton says. "That's just a fact." And it's a fact that the Lakers have gradually come to accept. But Bryant's penchant for freelancing remains a source of irritation, and his teammates' grumbling was loud after Bryant hit only 14 of 49 shots in back-to-back losses to the Spurs (95-89 on April 4) and the Blazers.
Instead of the Lakers' automatically reading and reacting based on where the ball is and how the defense is playing, Jackson will call more plays, including a lot of pick-and-rolls. Bryant is devastating in that scheme; Payton runs it well; Shaquille O'Neal is often at his best when he's on the perimeter and on the move; and after Malone jump-started a draggy attack with nine key third-quarter points last Friday night in a 103-95 comeback win over the Memphis Grizzlies, he vowed to seek out more pick-and-roll opportunities.
ISSUE NO. 2: THE DEFENSE
The tendinitis Shaq began feeling in his right knee after he grabbed 26 rebounds in a 104-103 overtime defeat of the Milwaukee Bucks on March 21 has limited his mobility, making him even more reluctant to move away from the basket. And as much as the presence of four future Hall of Famers can be a boon to the offense, it can also drag down the D as the stars try to avoid the foul trouble that would remove them from the court. "We used to come out real aggressively on defense and set a tone," says Fox. "That doesn't always happen now."
The Lakers will go to early pick-and-roll reads on defense so that Malone, for instance, can switch to Shaq's man and be the one to jump out and defend beyond the free throw line. And though Payton is a future Hall of Famer and backup Derek Fisher a 7.4 points-per-game career scorer, Fisher's minutes must increase because of his defense. There was no more smothering perimeter defender than Payton in his prime, but the 35-year-old Glove can no longer wrap himself around quick guards such as Parker. Fisher, 29, who may be L.A.'s hardest-working player, can pick up his man at half-court and keep the opposition from getting seamlessly into its sets.