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SPORTS EXTRA / NBA 2000-01 PREVIEW | THE NBA

A Lot Ride(r)s on Rice Replacement

October 30, 2000|MARK HEISLER

Why this doesn't look good, or Deconstructing Phil Jackson. . . .

It used to be easier to make sense of the Lakers' exhibition season. If they walked like sitting ducks and talked like sitting ducks, and got their tail feathers shot off like sitting ducks, they were probably sitting ducks.

Now that Jackson is running things, one must consider other interpretations, like Jackson just smuggled 12 ducks into the dressing room and had them suit up for the exhibitions.

It shouldn't be discouraging to Laker fans that their team just had another unimpressive exhibition run. They were a lot worse last fall, before winning 67 regular-season games and the NBA title.

Jackson is a veterans' coach and his veterans eased in, like guys who know better. Ron Harper, who eases through the regular season, forget exhibitions, did a few cameos. Horace Grant scared everyone, so dim was his bulb.

None of that is the problem. What should terrify Laker fans is the Jackson-Isaiah Rider situation.

Rider came in, saying all the right things, as expected. Even skeptics--and the whole world is skeptical where he's concerned--thought he'd be on his best behavior, at least until the season started and real stuff started happening.

Sure enough, Rider was a sunbeam with the press and a pleasure to deal with for Laker staffers.

Unfortunately, his best didn't seem to be good enough for Jackson, who zinged him almost daily to reporters, whether or not he was asked about him.

Rider was out of shape. They say he didn't pick up the triangle quickly. That may have been a disappointment to Jackson, but the word among people familiar with Rider is: If you thought Glen Rice was a poor fit in that offense, wait till you see Rider. He isn't your basic hit-the-first-open-teammate-and-move-without-it kind of guy and that's what the triangle requires.

Either Jackson was just trying to shape Rider up before the real stuff begins--or he was serious. With Jackson, who says what's on his mind, it's still hard to tell, because he doesn't say everything that's on his mind.

Nevertheless, the best guess is Jackson wasn't kidding . . . and he'd be willing to cut Rider loose in a heartbeat.

Now, it's possible Rider will take the hint, but it must be noted, he has proven impervious to hints from Flip Saunders, Mike Dunleavy and Lenny Wilkens, just to name a few.

Without Rider, the Lakers would still have Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, by far the best 1-2 punch in the game. However, they wouldn't have much else in the way of firepower and less than all their top rivals in the way of size.

Nevertheless, Jackson looks comfortable with a two-star, 10-journeyman setup. It's what he had in Chicago and pretty much what he had here last season, with Rice so far off his usual numbers.

A year ago, Jackson came out of camp downplaying goals, and it wasn't a setup. His players weren't taking to the triangle, which is why he wanted veteran help from Chicago--though he was thinking more Scottie Pippen than Harper. Jackson didn't think they were big enough, or deep enough on the front line, seeing as how he didn't trust John Salley, Travis Knight, or, indeed, any Laker over 230 pounds except O'Neal.

Jackson thought they'd trade Rice during the season for a bigger power forward, so when they made no moves and won a title, it was as much a surprise to him as anyone.

But the West is better than it was last season and it was no picnic then.

In a worst-case scenario in Portland, the Trail Blazers may not be better with all their ballyhooed moves, but they won't be worse, either. Since they would have won a title if they'd held a 15-point fourth-quarter lead, how much better did they have to get?

The San Antonio Spurs look like they're back.

The Seattle SuperSonics are a lot better.

The Utah Jazz is the Utah Jazz.

Gee, when the Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Vancouver Grizzlies are looking like they'll be more than the usual walkovers, you know this is going to be a test, and for no one more than the defending champion.

Without the modicum of depth Rider represents, kiss this title defense goodbye. He may be a sturdy guy but right now, he looks like a frail hope.

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