Lakers in disarray

Posted: Friday, December 27, 2002

There's no shortage of blame to go around. Answers are another story.

A few days after he finally reported for active duty, Shaquille O'Neal pinned the Los Angeles Lakers' slump on the ''blankety-blanks that ain't doing nothing.'' A few days after that, he said he was just trying to get a rise out of his teammates.

Kobe Bryant had a different take. He blamed a lack of talent, not effort, for the Lakers' woes. Then Rick Fox argued that his teammates abandoned the triangle offense too quickly, but Brian Shaw took the other side. He said zone defenses are making the triangle difficult to execute.

As the spiral deepened, there were as many excuses as there are Lakers. That left it to coach Phil Jackson to find a unifying theory.

Asked why his six-time NBA champion Chicago Bulls never hit the skids the way the three-time defending champion Lakers have, this was Jackson's reply:

''I think it's kind of a seismograph energy coming from the Earth, that's what I attribute it to. Astrologically, we don't fit together as a team quite like that group did. And the conjunctions of certain planets have kept us apart.''

On Wednesday, that conjunction of planets was named the Sacramento Kings.

Few teams will argue they've suffered more under the Lakers' dynasty. Los Angeles eliminated the Kings each of the last three years en route to a championship, including a Game 7 heartbreaker in overtime last season.

Shaq referred to the Kings as ''the Queens'' earlier this season, which may have been the beginning of a discussion between Fox and Sacramento's Doug Christie that ended with a fist fight at Staples Center in a preseason game Oct. 25.

So when the Kings walked off the court Christmas Day in L.A. with a 105-99 win, adding one more welt to the collection the Lakers are amassing this season, some gloating might have been in order.

But Sacramento coach Rick Adelman passed on the opportunity to jab the Lakers, who fell to 11-19.

''I think the biggest difference is they are not making shots,'' Adelman said. ''I still think they are a pretty darned good team and they're going to be back.''

It really could be that simple.

Or not.

As Wednesday night proved, Shaq and Kobe are still the NBA's No. 1 and 2 talents. O'Neal, still struggling to regain his fitness after surgery on his big toe, finished with 27 points, a season-high 17 rebounds and five assists. Bryant also scored 27, to go along with 15 rebounds and six assists.

But Shaq shot 8-of-19 for the game and just 2-of-8 after halftime, with both baskets coming after the outcome had been decided. Similarly, Bryant made only 7 of 24 shots and went 2-for-12 in the second half.

The odds their supporting cast can make up deficits have been low so far this season and dropping. As a group, the rest of the Lakers are hovering around 40 percent.

But even if everybody's shots start falling, just making the playoffs is going to take some luck. At the start of the season, Jackson set 50 wins as the target for a team that will probably need home-court advantage in one or more series to claim a fourth title.

To get to 50 wins now, the Lakers would have to go 39-13 the rest of the way, a winning percentage of .750. Only Dallas has a better percentage so far this season.

Which brings us to another, more likely reason for the Lakers' problems. The Western Conference rivals the Lakers need to beat now -- the same teams they've been beating the last few years -- have been remodeled with the exact opposite result in mind.

Sacramento was already a deeper team last season, even if they had trouble backing up Vlade Divac's brash pronouncement on the eve of Game 7: ''They have the two greatest players around, but we know overall we are a better team.''

Perhaps now Dallas has more talent as well, and Eastern Conference rivals Indiana and New Jersey might claim a spot on that list.

Whether Jackson has a plan for overcoming those deficits is anybody's guess. He likes his players to solve most puzzles themselves. It's why Jackson turns his back on them during the occasional timeout, why he lets players stay in games with foul trouble and why he won't limit their shots, even when they come outside the triangle system he favors.

In the past, Jackson let wins and losses make his points for him. But only because he had so much more talent he could wait out his competitors. But the only thing the Lakers' record is proving is that he won't have that luxury this time around.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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