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Original Issue

Inside The NBA

Phil Jackson digs O'Neal in the triangle

As far back as three years ago, when Phil Jackson was coaching
the NBA's best team (the Chicago Bulls) and the league's best
player (Michael Jordan), he'd break down film on opposing teams
and catch himself daydreaming about Shaquille O'Neal. "Phil and
I used to talk about how nicely Shaq would fit in the way we
played," says longtime Bulls assistant Tex Winter, the architect
of the triangle offense that helped Jackson win six
championships. "Phil always used to tell me, 'I'd love a chance
to coach Shaq.'"

He'll have that chance now. Jackson was introduced as coach of
the Los Angeles Lakers on June 16 after signing a five-year, $30
million contract that will give him all the time he needs to
implement the triple-post offense. While Jackson's hiring
instantly sent expectations through the roof of the Staples
Center, the new 20,000-seat arena that the Lakers will play in
next season, it also left observers speculating about how O'Neal
would adjust to the triangle, which demands offensive sacrifices
from each player and requires the pivot man to be a deft
passer--something that Shaq has never been.

Jackson expresses little concern over how his new superstar will
adjust to the complexities of the system. "It doesn't take a
chemical-engineering degree to figure out how to play
basketball, that's for sure," he says.

Winter says that O'Neal is a perfect fit for the triangle and
that it's a mistake to think he will have the same role in the
system that the Bulls centers had. Chicago, with Bill Cartwright
and Luc Longley as its starting pivotmen, never had a dominant
player in the middle. "As a matter of fact, this offense is far
more effective with a dominant center," Winter says. "The center
is the apex of the triangle. He is really the first option of
the offense. He accepts what we call our 'priority pass,' from
the wing into the post, and if he's in a good position to get to
the basket, he'll go."

Because the Bulls didn't have a center of O'Neal's caliber,
their big men passed the ball to players cutting through the
key. "If those cutters are open, it's the center's job to pass
them the ball," Winter says. "If they are guarded, they will
take their defenders with them as they cut through the middle,
which leaves that area open again for the big man, giving him a
second look at the basket."

Winter and Jackson point to past NBA clubs as evidence that a
dominant center can flourish in the triple post. The Lakers used
a variation of this offense in the early '70s with Wilt
Chamberlain, and Philadelphia coach Alex Hannum featured Wilt in
a similar vein when the Sixers won the 1967 championship. Winter
says Milwaukee coach Larry Costello also implemented parts of
the triple post with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to help the Bucks win
the championship in 1971.

O'Neal has heartily endorsed the choice of Jackson, whom he
dubbed "a legend" late last week. Sources close to Shaq say he
is willing to adjust his game now that there's a clear
strategy--and a long-term coach--in place.

"The one thing Shaq should be prepared for is, it could cut down
on his scoring," Winter says. "On the other hand he'll have
plenty of opportunities."

The player who may have the most trouble adjusting to the
triangle is Kobe Bryant. Although he possesses all the tools to
flourish in this offense--quickness, good shooting range,
ball-handling skills--he might have to battle the urge to catch
and shoot rather than continue the flow of the triangle by
making the extra pass. According to Winter, Jordan struggled
with that urge right up until the end of his career. "When you
take a player with the skills that Jordan or Kobe has, he wants
to score every time he touches the ball," Winter says. "That's
understandable. But in this offense, you can't make spectators
out of your teammates."

Jackson concedes that the offense will take time and patience to
teach. No wonder there is so much speculation about the Lakers'
acquiring former Bulls swingman Scottie Pippen, who spent an
unhappy year in Houston as a third option in its offense,
publicly pining for the triangle. The bait might have to be
shooter Glen Rice, although Lakers boss Jerry West dismissed
talk of dealing him late last week.

Jackson will break down film and study his new team before he
decides what's best. That won't prevent him, however, from
daydreaming about Pippen between tapes.

Odom's Flip-Flop

Lamar Odom's only visit to an NBA team--Vancouver, on June
3--was like a trip to Disneyland. He bonded with smiling general
manager Stu Jackson and coach Brian Hill, who own the No. 2 pick
in the June 30 draft. Odom was impressed by the sparkling city
and was encouraged by the young Grizzlies lineup, which includes
Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Mike Bibby. Even Odom's workout, which
got off to a rocky start because he was very nervous, had one of
those sticky-sweet happy endings. "His shots in the beginning
weren't going down," says his former attorney, Jeff Klein, "but
he sucked it up and suddenly found it. That's what the coaches
were talking about afterward. They were struck by his poise."

Yet there was Odom last week, unraveling in full view of the
NBA. He announced that he would ask the NCAA to allow him to
return to Rhode Island even though he had signed a player-agent
agreement with Klein, which ended his college eligibility.
Odom's about-face came after he failed to show up in Chicago on
June 12, where top prospects underwent physicals and were
officially weighed and measured. Odom was also a no-show at
workouts for the Hornets and the Bulls, who have the third and
first picks, respectively. By then, Klein, who found out after
the fact that Odom had failed to show in Chicago, had resigned
as his agent.

Odom's bid to become a college kid again was doomed from the
start. The NCAA is inflexible on eligibility once a player has
signed with an agent. Besides, even if Odom were cleared to
return to the Rams, he would probably be academically
ineligible, because last spring he disappeared from campus for
several days, even during exams.

By the time Rhode Island announced, last Friday, that it would
not ask the NCAA to reinstate Odom's eligibility and that he
would remain an early-entry candidate in the draft, questions
were swirling around the 19-year-old. Had he balked because he
was feeling like "a commodity," as Rhode Island officials
suggested? Was he hiding something or was there some other
explanation for his actions? Will he take a physical? "We like
guys we are considering for the draft to have taken a physical,"
Bulls general manager Jerry Krause says drily.

While general managers throughout the league speculated that
Chicago would cross Odom off its list, especially with
attractive alternatives such as Maryland point guard Steve
Francis, Krause says, "I don't think that we can do anything
until we meet and talk to the young man. Let's see what happens."

At week's end Odom was making arrangements to reschedule
workouts with the Hornets and Bulls. He is such an enticing
talent--6'10" and a terrific passer--it's unlikely that he'll
fall out of the top three. His recent behavior will "have no
bearing" on what Vancouver does with the No. 2 pick, says Jackson.

"I don't think it would affect our thinking," concurs Charlotte
G.M. Bob Bass. "The only thing I would like to do is get the kid
in here and talk to him."

That line forms on the left.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH He may pass more and score less in Jackson's scheme, but Shaq will still be the first option.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Whether he likes it or not, school's out for Odom.

Around The Rim

Newly named Washington coach Gar Heard wasted little time
telling G.M. Wes Unseld what he wants. "I told him that
re-signing Mitch Richmond should be our Number 1 priority,"
Heard said on Friday night. "I look out there, and I don't see
anybody like him." But will the Wizards pay Richmond what he
wants, which is a deal similar to Rod Strickland's four-year,
$40 million package?...

League sources say Toronto is trying to work out a deal with
Vancouver to obtain the No. 2 pick in the draft, but only if
Maryland's Steve Francis is still on the board. Toronto has
discussed offering the No. 5 choice and Doug Christie....

Two Western Conference G.M.'s say the medical report on UCLA
point guard Baron Davis's surgically repaired left knee shows
that the joint is not as "tight" as they would like it to be,
but the consensus around the league is that Davis is worth the
risk, given his considerable skills....

The woman who alleges that Clippers center Michael Olowokandi
raped her has offered to settle her claim for $3.7 million,
according to a source close to the case. Olowokandi's reply: See
you in court....

Small forward Wally Szczerbiak's stock continues to go up, up,
up. Some teams' mock drafts project him going in the top five.
That's bad news for Cleveland, which has the No. 8 selection and
desperately wants Szczerbiak, a Miami of Ohio star, to help
inject new life into a franchise whose attendance dropped 16.7%
last season.