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Lakers are ringing in the new Young, talented group matures into title force

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's a query that causes Kurt Rambis to pause because, frankly, he thinks comparing the "Showtime Era" of the Los Angeles Lakers, during which he won four championship rings, to the current team, which hasn't earned him any new jewelry as an assistant coach, is unfair.

But when asked just how good the current Lakers' team can be, Rambis only pauses to lower his big duffel bag to the ground so he can better demonstrate his point.

"Some teams have the potential to play at a level here," Rambis says, holding his right hand about chest high. Then he raises that same hand about a foot above his head, and says, "We're capable of playing at a level here.

"Right now we're playing well, but we're playing at a level so far below where we're capable of playing. This team hasn't grown yet to what we were [in the '80s]. But the potential is absolutely tremendous."

And the potential is pretty scary, considering what the Lakers have done without All-Star center Shaquille O'Neal (out since Nov. 19 with an abdominal strain). With last night's 98-88 win over San Antonio, the Lakers have a 15-2 record, the third best start in franchise history and best in the league. The versatile Lakers are the top scoring team in the league (108.2 ppg) and have won by the biggest point differential (+11.5).

And the third youngest team in the league (25.8 years) has accomplished much of its early-season success without O'Neal, who has played in just eight games this year.

"The Lakers organization over the next seven, eight years is going to be in line for a championship," Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino said before his team lost to the Lakers, 118-103, on Nov. 26. "This is a powerful, powerful basketball team. They are capable of doing anything."

Added point guard Nick Van Exel: "We can't win them all, although we'd like to. I think we pretty much know our potential. If we get out there every night and play each team like it's a championship team, we can go a long way."

The Lakers felt like they were on their way a year ago when, despite O'Neal missing 31 games, they finished 56-26. A healthy O'Neal had the Lakers thinking championship.

But a loss in five games to the Utah Jazz, during which then 18-year-old Kobe Bryant was called on to take the final shots, had many questioning whether the team would forever suffer from lack of leadership.

'Wake-up' call

That maturity question led the Lakers to entertain thoughts of an Eddie Jones for Mitch Richmond deal with the Sacramento Kings last month. But the Lakers, who were undefeated at the time, stood pat and Jones has continued to play at the level that made him a first-time All-Star last year.

"Sometimes trade rumors are a wake-up call," said forward Robert Horry, who should know -- in 1994 he was traded from Houston to the Detroit Pistons, only to have that deal later voided. Horry would go on to win two titles with Houston. "But I don't know if it was a wake-up call for Eddie because he's played well since I've been here."

So far this year Van Exel and O'Neal have stepped up as vocal leaders -- although some players feel the leadership criticism from a year ago was overblown.

"People always claim and want to boast and brag on so-called leaders, but you really don't need it -- you need individual guys who take it upon themselves to do well," Horry said. "In Houston, everybody said that Dream [Hakeem Olajuwon] was the leader, but Dream never said anything. He just led by example. And this is a team that leads by example."

Van Exel, 26, has done that. A year ago it seemed his future would be elsewhere after arguing on the sideline with coach Del Harris during the Utah series, and his saying days later that he could not co-exist with the coach. This season, Van Exel has set aside those differences, and has provided guidance to younger players and set the tone with his unselfish play at the point, averaging 17.6 points and 6.3 assists.

"Nick has improved tremendously in his ability to deal with things and off the court, and in his relationship with the coach," Rambis said.

Said Van Exel: "I'm a player, he's the coach and I just want to go out and do my job. After losing that series in Utah last year, it really opened my eyes. I never want to go through anything like that again. All I'm worried about now is getting on the court, and trying to make things right this time."

Bryant bursts forth

What makes the Lakers so dangerous is that they can beat you in so many ways. On the inside, O'Neal and Elden Campbell provide a strong presence. On the outside, Van Exel, Jones, Bryant and Rick Fox keep defenses honest with their ability to hit open shots.

They are also versatile, with six players capable of playing multiple positions. The team can run and finish on the break as well as anybody in the league. And the ability that Jones, Bryant and Van Exel have of breaking down defenders off the dribble make the Lakers a highlight favorite.

Bryant, who jumped from high school directly to the NBA, might be the most exciting player of the bunch. His leaping ability provides at least one highlight a night, but the most amazing part of his game is his poise and court sense and willingness to learn. Bryant's 15.1 points per game make him the highest-scoring non-starter in the league.

"He's done more than anyone expected from an 18-year-old," said Harris, who, while in Houston, coached Joe Bryant -- Kobe's dad. "And now at the age of 19, there are probably a couple of guys in the history of the game who can say they were that good at that age -- Magic Johnson and Kevin Garnett."

Because Bryant and some of the other younger players have settled in nicely without the team's All-Star center, it will be interesting to see what effect O'Neal's return later this month has on the team's chemistry. Without O'Neal the ball movement has been crisp, with the constant hitting of the open man reminiscent of the Johnson- and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-led Lakers of the '80s. When he returns, it could lead to the team simply dumping the ball into the low post and watching.

"Yeah, with Shaq we get lazy once in a while," Bryant said. "We've been forced without Shaq to play more together, to rely on our fast break more. Hopefully when he returns we can keep that up."

Harris: Club 'tougher-minded'

With so much talent in place, the man on the hot seat is Harris. With the Lakers so loaded, it's up to the Leslie Nielsen (of "Naked Gun" fame) look-a-like to keep the team focused even against weaker opponents.

On a recent night in Philadelphia, the Lakers suffered a letdown, dropping a game to a 76ers team that had won just three games going in. And the white-haired Harris, maybe the league's most improved dresser as he sports a snazzy black designer suit and purple silk shirt, is taking it pretty much in stride.

"It's hard to do a lot of bragging on a night when you get beat, but we have a good team and I don't think anybody wants to play us," Harris said in Philadelphia. "Basically the difference with this team this year is we have been a little more tougher-minded, more goal-oriented.

"To win and establish a good record, you have to pay a price and you have to be good every night," Harris added. "You go from the hunter to the hunted, and there's no question we have a target on our backs and everybody wants a piece of the Lakers."

Which is exactly how it was during the '80s. So far, the Lakers have handled the pressure well. If they reach their potential, Rambis expects to be sized for another championship ring in June. And maybe then, he'll make comparisons.

"This team has to establish its own identity, its own style," Rambis said. "I think the guys that we had, when they got here, were already playing in a way that was a championship style. And while this team hasn't grown into that yet, the upside is tremendous."

Pub Date: 12/06/97

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