Publish date:

3 Los Angeles Lakers Shaq and Kobe say that all is well, but Phil Jackson still has personnel issues

Consumed as they are with learning the intricacies of new coach
Phil Jackson's triangle offense, the Lakers are hoping they
won't have to concern themselves with another geometrical
issue--the distance between their two most important points,
center Shaquille O'Neal and guard Kobe Bryant. There were times
last season when that chasm seemed to be as wide as the
sprawling Montana ranch where Jackson spent last season
rejuvenating himself. O'Neal didn't hide his exasperation at
Bryant's sometimes individualistic play, and Bryant refused to
play a deferential, dump-the-ball-into-Shaq style.

So although the Lakers seemed to adapt to Jackson's new
choreography quite nicely during the preseason, it won't matter
if he teaches them to dance The Nutcracker if O'Neal and Bryant
don't get along. For now the team's two catalysts seem intent on
closing their gap, as evidenced by O'Neal's presence at Bryant's
21st-birthday party in August. Referring to his conflicts with
O'Neal, Bryant says, "It was inevitable, but we just got it out
of the way. We're going to have arguments, but last season they
just got blown out of proportion."

The true test of their relationship won't come until Bryant
recovers from a broken right hand that will keep him sidelined
for at least the first two weeks of the season. But O'Neal also
insists that whatever tension once existed is gone. "It's normal
for two guys who are not similar to each other to go through
things like that," he says. "I'm sure Magic and Kareem went
through it. I know [Charles] Barkley and Dr. J [Julius Erving]
went through it. The more we play together, the more we're going
to learn about each other. I don't have a problem with him. If I
have a problem with anybody or anything, I will say it. I don't
hold my tongue."

The reconciliation of Bryant and O'Neal doesn't mean the Lakers
have solved all of their chemistry issues. There's still the
matter of forward Glen Rice, who had trouble fitting into the
offense last year after being acquired from Charlotte at
midseason for Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell. Rice's contract
expires at season's end, and the Lakers are in no hurry to offer
him an extension. Until his future becomes clearer, Rice realizes
he will be the constant subject of trade rumors. "It's not going
to become a distraction to me, because I'm not going to talk
about it," says Rice, 32, who shot a career-worst 43.2% from the
floor last year and averaged 17.5 points, his lowest output since

But if ignoring a problem could make it disappear, the Lakers
would no doubt turn a blind eye to their power forward situation.
Because they didn't have the salary-cap room to lure free agent
Charles Oakley, they acquired former Laker A.C. Green from Dallas
for center Sean Rooks and a second-round draft choice. At 36,
Green obviously isn't the player he was when he helped the Lakers
win two titles in the 1980s. The best Jackson can hope for is
that the combination of Green, Robert Horry and Travis Knight
adds up to one serviceable power forward.

Without a solid partner under the boards, the 7'1" O'Neal has a
heavy load to carry. Jackson wishes that weren't so literally
true. Although he won't say what he thinks his center's ideal
weight is, Jackson has made it clear that he thinks O'Neal played
with too many pounds last season, and he wasn't thrilled when big
Shaq reported to training camp roughly the size of a small
shack--not particularly flabby, just huge. O'Neal said he weighed
in at 340 pounds, at least 10 heavier than last season. "The more
I lift weights, the higher the number's going to be," O'Neal
says. "I'm not really concerned about numbers. I'll bust any big
man's butt no matter what I weigh."

Jackson has soft-pedaled the issue. "I'm not going to disagree
with Shaq because he gets fouled harder than anyone in the game,
and he believes he needs extra weight, extra muscle, to withstand
the abuse," Jackson says. "But with all the other factors, the
fact that he had a knee injury two years ago and a stomach injury
he's had trouble with, he might be better served if there was
less weight."

As talented as the Lakers are with O'Neal, Bryant and Rice,
Jackson admits that his roster isn't perfectly suited to playing
the style he wants to play, especially at the defensive end. He
brought in former Bulls assistant Jim Cleamons to teach the
aggressive Doberman defense that the Michael Jordan-era Bulls
played, but he doesn't have three snarling defenders like Jordan,
Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant/Dennis Rodman to make it work.
"We're going to pressure the ball," Jackson says. "There's no
doubt in my mind that you have to have the ability to force
people into mistakes. Do we have the players? No. But we're going
to find a way to do it."

Jackson also likes big guards, and he will experiment with the
6'6" Bryant and 6'7" Rick Fox together in the backcourt when
Bryant returns from his injury. Jackson has brought in 6'6" Ron
Harper too. A key member of three of Jackson's title teams in
Chicago, Harper, 35, can help teach the triangle. But aside from
that, his main value may be as someone with whom Jackson can
reminisce about the Bulls' glory days.

If Los Angeles doesn't get out of the blocks quickly, it won't
necessarily be cause for concern, because Bryant's injury and the
lack of familiarity with the offense are mitigating factors. It's
also worth remembering that some of Jackson's championship teams
in Chicago were slow starters; his first one, in 1990-91, started
5-6, and his last one, in 1997-98, was 6-5. "I think it's going
to take two months, maybe sometime around Christmas, for this
team to develop all the right instincts and reactions," he says.

Forget instincts and reactions. The key for the Lakers is whether
O'Neal and Bryant are still on good enough terms to exchange
gifts by then.

--Phil Taylor

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Odd man out? Rice, a misfit in L.A. last year, will look for a place in Jackson's triangle.


BENCH [3 stars]
COACH [4 1/2 stars]
FRONT OFFICE [4 1/2 stars]
CHEMISTRY [2 1/2 stars]

By the Numbers

1998-99 record: 31-19 (tied for fourth in Western Conference)
Coach: Phil Jackson (first season with Lakers)

AVERAGES (rank) (rank) (rank) (rank)

LAKERS 99.0 (2) 46.8 (1) 42.0 (13) 15.1 (11)
OPPONENTS 96.0 (25) 44.1 (17) 40.6 (10) 14.3 (23)

In Fact

Phil Jackson has the highest career winning percentage (.738) of
any NBA coach (minimum 400 games), and his new employer's
alltime record of 2,440-1,551 (.611) is the best among the 29
current teams.

Projected Lineup


SF Glen Rice 48 17.5 ppg 3.7 rpg 2.6 apg 43.2 FG%
Had just 0.5 points per game more than Eddie Jones after
L.A.-Charlotte trade

PF A.C. Green[#] 174 4.9 ppg 4.6 rpg 0.5 apg 42.2 FG%
Returns to L.A. with NBA-record consecutive games streak still
alive at 1,028

C Shaquille O'Neal 2 26.3 ppg 10.7 rpg 2.3 apg 57.6 FG%
Led league in field goal percentage for third time in his
seven-year career

SG Kobe Bryant 32 19.9 ppg 5.3 rpg 3.8 apg 46.5 FG%
Scored 33 points in one half in March and 19 points in one
quarter in May

PG Ron Harper[#] 170 11.2 ppg 5.1 rpg 3.3 apg 37.7 FG%
Averaged 20.1 ppg for Clippers in 1993-94, his last season in
Los Angeles


F Rick Fox 155 9.0 ppg 2.0 rpg 2.0 apg 44.8 FG%
Started all 82 games in 1997-98 but had just one start last

G-F Robert Horry 165 4.9 ppg 4.0 rpg 1.5 apg 45.9 FG%
Worst year of career got worse with discovery of irregular

G Derek Fisher 216 5.9 ppg 1.8 rpg 3.9 apg 37.6 FG%
Led team with 197 assists last season but lost starting job to
Derek Harper

F-C Travis Knight 308 4.2 ppg 3.5 rpg 0.8 apg 51.5 FG%
Will miss first few weeks of season with sprained right ankle

G-F Devean George[#](R) 317 27.5 ppg 11.3 rpg 2.1 apg 51.8 FG%
No. 23 pick played at Division III Augsburg (Minn.) College

[#]New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 102)