About a week into training camp, Samaki Walker had to sit down
and extract his sneaker from his mouth. "I take back my words on
the triangle's being easy to learn," he said, wearing a rueful
smile. Walker had spent the first few days playing center as
Shaquille O'Neal recovered from off-season surgery on his left
pinkie toe, but as soon as Walker moved to forward--where he
will likely spend most of this season--the intricacies of the
offense invented by Lakers assistant Tex Winter (and validated
over the years by head coach Phil Jackson) became evident. Then
again, Walker isn't used to playing with the Big Bailout, who
only returned to the lineup last week. "Shot clock running down,
things not going well, dump it into Shaq," says Walker. "That's
a pretty good play in any offense. And it's going to be a pretty
good play for a long time."
So we get to the essence of these Lakers. Yes, they're well
coached, and yes, they have an offensive system that has
produced the NBA champion in eight of the last 11 seasons. But
mostly what they have is the game's most dominant force, and if
that's not enough, they also have Kobe Bryant, who appears ready
to become the best player in the game under seven feet and 330
pounds. Yes, it's conceivable that by January, Bryant and O'Neal
will be feuding again--quietly or on Page One of the Los Angeles
Times--about whose team this really is. (It's Shaq's team,
except when double-teaming and poor foul-shooting dictate that
it become Kobe's team.) Only after that issue was resolved last
season did L.A. begin kicking butt and taking names. However,
Bryant, now 23, seems much more mature, comfortable and poised,
not to mention supremely talented in every phase of the game.
"When things go wrong, he's one of the guys to speak up," says
Walker, who signed a free-agent contract in the off-season, "and
Bryant has become such a leader that he even offered tonsorial
advice to O'Neal, who had grown a modest Afro and talked about
going with braids. "I told him shaved was his look," says Bryant.
"Got to get back to being the Diesel." Sure enough, Shaq sheared
Still, there is a big question as Jackson pursues his third
three-peat: Even after making their usual batch of perspicacious
moves (adding Walker and guards Mitch Richmond and Lindsey
Hunter), did the Lakers suffer a net decline when they chose not
to re-sign Horace Grant and Ron Harper? There is a school of
thought that all championship teams must tweak their roster the
following season to juice things up a bit. Losing two valuable
veterans, however, is more than tweaking. "We got excellent
players to replace Horace and Harp," says Rick Fox, "but we lose
nine rings between them. It's not a question of replacing their
leadership. It's a question of replacing their knowledge and
experience, knowing what to do in May and June when the margin
of error gets small."
Considering the injuries to O'Neal and point guard Derek Fisher
(who is not expected to return until mid-November after his
second surgery on his right foot) and the adjustment problems of
working Richmond, Hunter and Walker into the rotation, the
Lakers may start slowly. But that's not unfamiliar
territory--last Dec. 13 they were 15-9. "Losing early and
showing you can recover is not something you adopt as a goal,"
says Fox, laughing. "We'd like to get our game together by the
50-game mark." The Lakers' 56-26 record last season represented
the lowest win total of any of Jackson's previous seven
championship seasons. "The ideal way to win a championship is
step-by-step," says Jackson. "You're building, always building.
Last year we never took any shortcuts, although we got there
eventually. We'd like it not to be as tough this year."
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER SCARY Here's frightening news for the rest of the league: Kobe, at 23, is showing new maturity, working hard and getting better.
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Lakers
"When you think about the ways to beat them, you don't find much.
The best way to go is to attack them at the three spot and pull
Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant away from the basket.... Mitch
Richmond was an excellent pickup for them. He has a tendency to
sulk when things go bad but how often are things going to go bad
in L.A.? Same thing with Lindsey Hunter, another excellent
acquisition. They'll both make big contributions in spots, and
they'll help with the young players.... Samaki Walker is a good
athlete who suffered in San Antonio because when either Duncan or
Robinson went out, he had to guard the big guys. I'm assuming
that's the reason he really tailed off after a good start last
season. He should play mostly the four spot for these guys....
One guy who's hard to like is Jelani McCoy. Maybe he'll respond
on a good team, but he's a dog. As limited as Mark Madsen is, he
might outwork McCoy and bury him deep on the bench.... In fact,
as weird as it sounds, I could see their starting Madsen in a
caretaker role and bringing Walker and Robert Horry off the
bench.... Attack them early in the season if Shaq's out of shape.
But he's going to come back and get you sooner or later. He
really matured last year, particularly on defense, where he
played off people and didn't body up all the time.... The word is
that Kobe is working harder and getting better. And Derek Fisher,
when he gets healthy, is perfect for this team. He's an
old-school, hard-nosed, unselfish guy who just wants to get the
ball to the right people."
2000-01 record: 56-26 (first in Pacific)
Coach: Phil Jackson (third season with Lakers)
PVR* 2000-01 KEY STATS
SF Rick Fox 9.6 ppg 4.0 rpg 3.2 apg 0.85 spg 44.4 FG%
PF Samaki Walker 5.3 ppg 4.0 rpg 0.67 bpg 48.0 FG% 62.9 FT%
C Shaquille O'Neal 28.7 ppg 12.7 rpg 3.7 apg 2.76 bpg 57.2 FG%
SG Kobe Bryant 28.5 ppg 5.0 apg 5.9 rpg 1.68 spg 46.4 FG%
PG Derek Fisher 11.5 ppg 4.4 apg 3.0 rpg 1.95 spg 41.2 FG%
PVR* 2000-01 KEY STATS
G Mitch Richmond16.2 ppg 3.0 apg 2.9 rpg 1.16 spg 33.8 3FG%
G Lindsey Hunter10.1 ppg 2.7 apg 1.24 spg 38.1 FG% 37.3 3FG%
F Robert Horry 5.2 ppg 3.7 rpg 1.6 apg 0.68 bpg 38.7 FG%
G Brian Shaw 5.3 ppg 3.8 rpg 3.2 apg 0.61 spg 39.9 FG%
F Mark Madsen 2.0 ppg 2.2 rpg 0.3 apg 48.7 FG% 70.3 FT%
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college season)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 117)
"Derek Fisher is perfect for this team--an old-school, hard-nosed, unselfish guy."