Lakers Preview

by Marcel Mutoni

The pre-season is underway and the regular season jumps off in less than a month (Oct. 31), so it’s probably time to start previewing the 2006-2007 NBA season. With the help of some of the most prominent hoop writers on the web (bloggers and newspaper columnists), we’ll be taking an in-depth look at each one of the 30 teams.

Today, Roland Lazenby, who is the author of numerous sports books and has served as editor of Lindy’s Pro Basketball Annual for the past 14 years, helps us preview the Los Angeles Lakers.

SLAM: Many felt that Kobe was robbed of the MVP award last season. Will he ever win one of those things?

RL: The MVP is part performance and part perception. Kobe Bryant has huge perception issues, for which he has to blame himself, Phil Jackson and Shaquille O’Neal in that order. There was a time when he seemingly made no mistakes, then a time when he made terrible decisions. Now he’s building his new adult life. When he was 20, I asked him about
basketball and he said, “There is nothing else.” These days his agenda has widened considerably. But there was something else he told me back in the day: “I just want to be the MAN. I just want to dominate.” That remains true. He wants to dominate, but these days Kobe is not so blinded by drive and testosterone. As Tracy McGrady pointed out to me in a recent conversation, Kobe is in a position in Los Angeles where he has to score a lot for his team to succeed. So Kobe will remain a figure in the spotlight in terms of performance, even though he will take fewer shots this season. The public’s perception of him will begin to change if and when his team becomes a title contender. If the Lakers had gotten that last defensive rebound against Phoenix in Game 6 of last season’s playoffs, the Lakers would have advanced to play the Clippers in the second round. They might have won, but even if they didn’t, their progress would be seen as just cause for considering Kobe a primo MVP candidate heading into this season. That didn’t happen, and the Lakers are seen as a team with issues for 2006-07.

Thus, Kobe’s MVP candidacy has no real juice right now beyond serious Kobe backers, of which there simply aren’t enough. Can the Lakers get out of the gate strong this year? It could happen; the schedule favors them with lots of home games early. But there’s a lot of work to be done, and Phil Jackson has to mend after his hip surgery. So a strong start is hardly a given. As Tex Winter told me, the Lakers could slip back considerably, or each of Kobe’s key teammates could make more dramatic improvement as they did last year, and the team could win 55 games. If his teammates work hard, continue to get better, then Kobe has a chance to be an MVP this year. He has about the same chance as the Lakers have of getting to the Finals, I think. The year after this, Phil Jackson is in the third and final year of his contract with a second hip that also pains him considerably. If Kobe and the Lakers don’t get it done in Phil’s final two seasons, they’re facing another big coaching transition. And that will eat up yet more of Kobe’s precious time. So, it’s now or never. Kobe’s always had this insane sense of urgency to whatever he has done in basketball. This is a challenge he relishes. Tex Winter points out that he loves a challenge like this, that “this is what Kobe asked for.” What I’ve always liked about him is that he’s not afraid of doing the work to meet the big challenges. In fact, that defines his life. The odds are against him. But he says that’s when he’s at his best. We will see.

How does Mitch Kupchak still have a job in that town? After the Shaq fiasco, he seems to be paralyzed and hasn’t made any significant moves to really improve the team. What gives?

Mitch still has his job because he’s had years of practice watching Jerry West do it with mirrors. IF you think about it, West made many of the types of decisions that Kupchak now makes, except that West had the stature to float them past the fan base. Why have both Kupchak and West run the Lakers as they have? Jerry Buss. The guy is a huge gambler and a huge cheapskate. He has to be both. Although both elements of his nature have failed him miserably at times, they’ve also served his interests and those of Lakers fans pretty well in terms of championships won. Not only does the Lakers GM have to deal with the whims and unique nature of Jerry Buss, the GM now has to deal with the meddlesome involvement of the Buss children, who fancy themselves basketball people.
Then there’s the input of assistant GM Ronnie Lester. He’s a guy with his own strong ideas about personnel. And did we mention minority owner Magic Johnson? Or how about Phil Jackson himself, the most manipulative, paranoia-seeding figure in the history of basketball? Different advisers have different people’s ears. There’s more than a bit of intrigue, which means establishing a clear personnel policy is a complicated political game. Can Mitch be blamed for all of this? Of course not. He’s simply trying to be diplomatic and hope that reason will prevail. Even if reason does prevail, player personnel selection is a wild and crazy crapshoot. For example, Jerry West has admitted he favored selecting Sidney Moncrief over Magic Johnson in 1979, because “you just didn’t see where Magic was gonna play” in the pro game. Anyway, that’s ancient history, but it shows that GMs and personnel people are really rolling dice. They don’t know how a player’s going to turn out. As West told me once, “You can’t read people’s hearts.” You can see what they can do on the floor, but you don’t know what’s going on inside.

The real issue for the Lakers was Shaq. He wanted $30 mil plus in his new contract back in 2004, and he acted like a major asshole about the deal. He figured it was owed to him, and in many ways it was. Buss has a track record of being generous with players who are generous with him, but don’t push the guy, and don’t berate him in public, as Shaq did. Perhaps West would have been able to talk him down to the $20 mil deal that Shaq eventually signed in Miami. But West was gone, chased off by Jerry Buss and the craziness of the Lakers’ palace game (and by West’s own personal demons, I should add). Neither Jerry Buss nor Mitch Kupchak had the personality to develop a relationship with the difficult Shaq and the ambitious Kobe. West had that personality. So the indictment of Mitch becomes, HE DOESN’T HAVE WEST’S PERSONALITY OR STATURE. Well, neither do any of the other figures in NBA front offices. You would have hired one of Shaq’s friends as GM, but all they would have done is cave in (Buss wouldn’t allow that) and give Shaq the $30+ mil per year deal. If the Lakers had done that, they’d be deader than Friday’s fish in terms of the salary cap and luxury tax these days. Buss simply wasn’t going to throw away his hard-won money like that. Not on an aging guy who publicly disrespected him. The Lakers might have been okay if Dwyane Wade hadn’t benefited from the new NBA officiating rules that dictates the calling of all touch fouls on the perimeter. Once the league gave a free pass to Wade, Shaq and the Heat won their title. So now the Lakers, especially quiet, conservative Mitch, look like dicks. And Shaq’s wearing this platinum smile these days.

Phil and Kobe got along swimmingly last season. Can we expect this trend to continue, or is it only a matter of time before the drama starts all over again?

Phil and Kobe had their share of conflicts in the past, but once Phil decided to have a relationship with Kobe the point became moot. As Tex Winter points out, Phil is who he is because of his ability to establish titanium bond with his team’s superstar. Did it with Jordan. Six titles. Did it with Shaq. Three titles. Now he and Kobe are not only on the same page. They’re on the same line, the same verse, using the same exact periods and commas. Proof positive of that was the 2006 playoffs. Kobe played just as Phil wanted him to. Kobe stayed true, didn’t take off on his own because he didn’t trust what Phil was doing. As a result, they accomplished something: They exposed the team. The rest of the Lakers have to grow up, and it’s obvious that if the embarrassment of folding after a 3-1 series lead, plus the embarrassment of that Game 7 blowout, doesn’t do it, then Phil needs to find new players (and the Lakers have added some all-important shooters). This season will judge the competitiveness and the willingness of the rest of the roster to begin stepping up. If they’re not competitive in the wake of that fiasco, then they’ll never be competitive. Kobe and Phil acted in unison, and while it wasn’t pretty, they have made their point. They are together, and the rest of the roster had better join them if they want to remain Lakers. Phil wants Kobe to take fewer shots this season to give Radmanovich and other new Lakers some room in the offense. Kobe will comply, dropping
his shots from 26 or 27 a game to 22 or 23. He’ll do this early, see how things are going, then decide if he needs to bail the team out. It could be that if his new teammates get hot, Kobe will take even fewer shots. If he does that and the team gets off to a good start, there could be a building of momentum for his becoming the Less Is More MVP candidate.

Lamar Odom has is coming off a frustratingly up and down season. Should the Lakers start thinking about moving him, or will he eventually fulfill that Pippen-esque role?

Tex Winter doesn’t think there’s a better person in the league than Odom. Yet Winter was frustrated with him by season’s end, because Odom somehow couldn’t do simple things to make his own game better. He couldn’t seem to vary the nature of his cuts, as Winter asked him to do repeatedly last year. A simple thing, but a sure sign that Odom remained mired in confusion about the offense. Despite his frustration, Winter saw no reason to send Odom packing. Ron Harper had two terrible seasons in Chicago’s triangle before awakening in 95-96 as a triangle monster. Winter has hopes that Odom will have the same awakening this season. He actually began it last season when over the last two months of the regular season he averaged 16.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.9 assists
while shooting 55.1%. Will Odom be another Pippen? Offensively, he’ll get better at initiating the offense. And he’ll probably be a better scorer than Pippen. But Pippen was one of Winter’s sharpest triangle minds. And no one anchored a defense like Pippen with his ability to help defend and recover. If Odom becomes a fraction of Pippen, the Lakers will prosper.

Alright, enough foreplay, how will the Lakers fare this season?

The Lakers will fare as Odom, Walton, Bryant etc. function. They need guard help, which would take pressure off of Bryant and allow him to move to small forward some of the time (which Tex Winter likes) because it allows Bryant to play behind the defense in the triangle, much like Jordan did, where he can cause a lot of problems. Will they find defensive help on the perimeter, someone who even allows them to use a little ball pressure, even in the crazy new way the game was officiated last year with touch fouls on the perimeter? That’s a tall order. The Lakers need frontcourt help. Andrew Bynum will have to surprise, because he’s very young, very green and very big. Kwame Brown will have to show an improved level of competitiveness. And Chris Mihm will have to get healthy. I’m going to be an optimist and predict 50 wins. But like Tex says, this is a team that could swing up to 55 wins or drop to 42. There are a lot of issues to be settled here.

(Check out Roland’s blog: Lakernoise).