In fast break with past, Lakers fall back to pack

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The basketball gurus have weighed in with their opinions about what has gone wrong this season for the Los Angeles Lakers. But has anyone asked a good family therapist?

Is it merely coincidence that the Lakers have become just another dysfunctional NBA team as their two superstars, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, have found a new level of personal bliss?

Shaq got married, Kobe became a daddy and the Lakers could be on the verge of a breakup. Or a breakdown.

What's next, Phil Jackson tying the knot with live-in girlfriend Jeannie Buss, the boss' daughter and Lakers team executive? How badly do the Lakers want LeBron James, anyway?

The plan to climb over .500 by the end of January has turned out to be, like many things in Hollywood, pure fantasy. The 19-23 Lakers, who play in Phoenix tonight and in Sacramento on Friday, are in trouble and have been since the season began.

The team that won its third straight NBA title last season is threatening to become the league's first defending champion since the 1998-99 Chicago Bulls to fail to make the playoffs.

"That may be what we need, for our back to be completely against the wall, instead of just close to it," veteran guard Derek Fisher said at practice earlier this week.

Jackson, whose Zen approach worked so well during the Bulls' and Lakers' championship seasons, has been left befuddled by his team's mostly inconsistent play this season.

"They seemed to know how to play together last year when they came back," Jackson said. "Two years ago, they started out fine. This year, they seem to have a difficult time playing together."

Yet, they and everyone else in the league assumed the Lakers would overcome their horrendous, 3-9 start once O'Neal, who missed the entire preseason and those first 12 games after undergoing late-summer toe surgery, played his way into shape.

When Los Angeles roared back from a 30-point, second-half deficit to beat the Dallas Mavericks at the Staples Center on Dec. 6, everyone assumed the Lakers were back. They beat the Utah Jazz on the same court two nights later, but then lost three of the next four, the only win coming in overtime in Memphis.

"We weren't fooled by that," Jackson said of the now long-forgotten comeback win over the Mavericks. "We knew we could play for short periods of time."

Half-joking, Jackson added: "The fact is the games are too damn long. We need to play 40-minute games instead of 48."

Just when it looked as if they had gotten over the hump by winning five straight to get within two games of .500, Bryant became a first-time father. The Lakers have lost three of their past four games, including a rematch with last season's finals opponent, the New Jersey Nets.

It doesn't help that O'Neal and Bryant have played recently with nagging knee injuries. Or that the Lakers continue to maintain an uneasy truce among themselves. At various points this season, O'Neal and Bryant have not so quietly questioned their supporting cast's performance and perseverance.

The problems started when O'Neal chose to wait until September to have surgery, thus forcing the team to go to training camp without him.

"Shaquille not being there was a great hole in our game. It hurt the internal and the spiritual aspect of our team and the esprit de corps," Jackson said. "That's the thing that surprised us most and was the most challenging, how to build up that confidence and trust of how to play with each other and for each other."

That players such as veteran forwards Rick Fox and Robert Horry have struggled all season with their shooting and others, such as Fisher, Brian Shaw and emerging swingman Devean George, with their games, as well, has left the Lakers relying too much on their two superstars.

"The complementary players defer to Shaq and Kobe too much," said Tex Winter, the team's sagacious assistant coach. "[It's] maybe a lack of confidence in their own abilities."

It could also be age catching up with the Lakers. Four of their regulars are over 30 - O'Neal (31 in March), Horry (32), Fox (34 next month) and Shaw (37 next month). "Teams are constantly beating them down the floor," said one Western Conference scout.

Because other teams shaped their rosters around beating the Lakers, Jackson has had to throw new wrinkles in the offense and defense to keep his team from becoming too predictable.

It hasn't worked, and Jackson's biggest coaching flaw - allowing his players to work their way out of trouble rather than calling timeouts - has been exposed. If anything, he has had to coach this team too much.

"We've done more strategic coaching than just execution coaching, which I don't like to do, because I still think it's about turnovers, transition defense and stuff," Jackson said.

"I can still see that they're packing it in and throwing two and three bodies against Shaquille, playing Kobe every time he puts the ball on the floor. They're collapsing, so we've got to do different things.

"It's about us playing together and covering each other's backs."

The way things have gone, the Lakers have spent more time watching their own backs and wagging their championship-ring-laden fingers at each other.

O'Neal and Bryant have formed something of an alliance and have shot their share of verbal daggers at teammates. O'Neal has explicitly - and expletively - criticized the number of three-point shots taken. Bryant has wondered if others, such as George and Samaki Walker, should be playing more with injuries.

Fox said the internal bickering has made the Lakers even more vulnerable this season than in the past, when they often won despite O'Neal's feuding with Bryant or Jackson or the media.

"To fight yourself and to open up wounds that everyone else can stick knives in, it's not wise," said Fox.

Every time the Lakers seem to turn the corner, there is another obstacle awaiting them.

"We've always been a team that can make adjustments," Bryant said recently. "We'll get much better at having to solve the puzzle. Every game is a new puzzle."

But how long will it take? Horry was the one who predicted the Lakers would be back over .500 by the end of this month, and his teammates agreed. As of today, the Lakers are 4 1/2 games behind the Houston Rockets, who hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

"Four and a half games is not as easy to make up as you head into the second phase of the season as you would think," Fox said. "That's when teams start to play more like teams; they get better."

If anything, the Lakers are slowly sliding toward the unthinkable - missing the playoffs for the first time in nine years and for only the second time since 1976. Most figure it will take 44 wins to make the playoffs in the West, meaning Los Angeles has to go 25-15 the rest of the way.

One theory that is more comical than credible is that the Lakers are doing a one-season tank job in order to position themselves for James, the Ohio teenager expected to be the No. 1 pick in this year's draft. Told of the conspiracy talk, Jackson seemed amused.

"Really, that's a good one," he said, standing outside the team's dressing room in Phoenix earlier this month. "We haven't had a good draft choice since Magic [Johnson] or Kobe, I guess."

Should the Lakers fail to make the playoffs, it could signal the end of Jackson's short reign in Los Angeles. Not that general manager Mitch Kupchak would force Jackson out, as Bulls vice president Jerry Krause did in Chicago in 1998, but Jackson has been sending out smoke signals that he is tiring of the circus.

"We all have second thoughts," Jackson said last week. "I'll wait and see what their response is to the year."

The Lakers still may play themselves out of the draft lottery and into the playoffs. If they can get through a current stretch of four road games in the five remaining before the All-Star break, the schedule is favorable. Los Angeles plays 11 of its first 14 after the break at home.

Fisher likens the NBA season to a prizefight, with the main attraction being the Lakers.

"We're the heavyweight champion that everyone has been unable to beat," said Fisher, speaking of the past and not of the present. "We continue to take everyone's punches and blows. We're teeter-tottering, but it's a matter of whether or not we'll be knocked out. We don't believe that."

Reports from The Los Angeles Daily News contributed to this article.

Lagging Lakers

A comparison of some Lakers statistics from their past three championship seasons with this season shows how much they are underperforming (number in parentheses indicates league ranking): Category...1999-2000...2000-01...2001-02...2002-03

Scoring...100.8 (6)...100.6 (3)...101.3 (3)...96.9 (8)

Opp. scoring...92.3 (6)...97.2 (23)...94.1 (9)...96.9 (22)

Off. FG pct. ... .459 (6)... .465 (3)... .461 (6)... .438 (16)

Def. FG pct. ... .416 (1)... .438 (11)... .424 (1)... .439 (18)

Turnovers...13.9 (5)...14.4 (9)...12.7 (2)...15.6 (19)

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