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Inside the NBA | ON THE NBA

Lakers Are Still Drama Kings

November 24, 2002|Mark Heisler

Gee (yawn), is it time to start the season already?

Oh, the other guys opened three weeks ago?

Well ... OK.

If doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result stands as a definition of insanity, then making the same mistakes over and over and thinking you can keep getting away with them can stand as a definition for hubris, the Greek word coined to describe the arrogance of their gods.

So it was that Shaquille O'Neal walked onto the Staples Center floor three weeks and three days into the season, with everyone confident that the Lakers, who'd been shot as full of holes as Al Capp's old cartoon character Fearless Fosdick, and trailed Dallas by nine (yes, nine) games in the West, would roll, from that point.

As the San Antonio Express-News' Glenn Rogers wrote, "This would be considered a disastrous, perhaps fatal, start for any other contender ... but not here. Why?

"Because it's all BS: Before Shaquille O'Neal."

Said Dirk Nowitzki, after the Mavericks flattened the Lakers: "Shaq is the Lakers, pretty much.... When it comes to April and May, the Lakers will be the Lakers. They'll be the team to beat."

Between now and then, however, the local superhero has his work cut out for him. When O'Neal returned, the Lakers also trailed their archrivals, the Sacramento Kings, by 5 1/2 games, not to mention the Seattle SuperSonics, Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns, Minnesota Timberwolves, Utah Jazz, Clippers and Golden State Warriors. On the plus side, the Lakers were ahead of the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies, so you can't say their time without Shaq was a complete disaster.

Of course, this is an annual rite: Lakes open as favorites.... Something goes wrong.... Phil Jackson is unconcerned.... Problem persists even longer than Phil figured.... Just as panic threatens to break out in the streets, or at least on the talk shows, the Lakers arise to realize their greatness yet again.

Now, however, even Jackson, the Alfred E. ("What, me worry?") Neuman of the biz, whose specialty is keeping everyone calm, seems to signal an unusual level of concern, noting, as he did last week: "I mean, we just do not have an easy road ahead of us, where everything's going to fall into place and turn around."

Despite the local inclination to cut O'Neal as much slack as he needs, it must be noted the Great One put himself on the injured list, deferring off-season surgery to Sept. 11, or 18 days before the off-season ended.

Had he gotten his second opinion (the first, which he ultimately heeded, was in hand) and undergone surgery by Aug. 1 -- seven weeks after the season ended -- he could have made the opening of camp, which he needed.

That ignores everything O'Neal went through last season. His toe hurt, he was heavy, he lacked his old explosiveness, he felt put upon by everyone.

He said he was no longer concerned about his weight, he was just a big guy, and he would take a while after the season before deciding what to do about his toe.

Finally, he even bristled at Jackson when Phil told him they needed him to turn it up during the San Antonio series, before turning it up dramatically.

O'Neal has been remarkably upbeat this season but still lacks his old explosiveness. If he can't practice, as he couldn't last season, he may have to get by without it, as he did last season.

O'Neal is so far ahead of the field, he can still dominate this way, as he did in the end last spring when he might have been a little ... say, 20 pounds ... over that 342 he claimed to be.

Nevertheless, you can only imagine what he would do if he ever got back down around 325, although it has been a while since anyone has seen that.

And, as a Laker official notes, "You never will again."

But it wasn't only O'Neal who came out of their latest, scariest triumph feeling omnipotent. It was the whole organization.

Hubris is an occupational hazard of dynasts, whose confidence is a huge advantage ... but has only to move a hair over the line to become overconfidence.

After their escape from Sacramento, they talked about signing Charles Oakley, an old curmudgeon who would have come in handy. After they scattered the New Jersey Nets, Oakley's name fell off the agenda.

The moves they made seemed motivated as much by salary. Lindsey Hunter, owed $6.3 million, was traded for Tracy Murray, owed $3.7 million, and Kareem Rush, a prospect but one who might not be the kind of rookie who would play right away for Jackson.

With O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Jackson knocking down $42 million a season, expenses are always a concern. Laker people often note that compared to the billionaire owners, Jerry Buss is like the proprietor of a mom and pop store.

Buss had vowed to keep the payroll under the $52-million tax threshold but said it was OK to go over to re-sign Devean George, which was seen as a major concession.

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