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Cool, Calm Collective

ON THE NBA

Lakers can't yet match the Shaq-Kobe teams' results, but there's a lot to be said for chemistry, well-defined roles and the absence of drama

May 20, 2008|Mark Heisler

Here are some things that did not happen after the Lakers lost Games 3 and 4 to the Jazz:

The star center didn't say he struggled because his teammates took bad shots, that the big dog had to get bones to guard the house and that the press knew what was going on but was afraid to write it.

The star guard didn't say he wanted to be traded or call the center a fat malingerer.

The coach didn't zing either of them or publish a tell-all book (yet).

None of the owners' kids went on talk radio to zing the coach or each other.

The star guard didn't go on talk radio to blast the owner, his kids or the general manager.

I could go on like this -- I haven't even alluded to Dennis Rodman, Nick Van Exel, Mr. and Mrs. Glen Rice, J.R. Rider, Smush Parker and Kwame Brown -- but you get the idea.

Forget your father's Lakers, these aren't even your Lakers.

The day Kobe Bryant got his MVP award -- a year after excoriating the organization and demanding to be traded -- he exclaimed, "It's Hollywood! It's a movie script!"

Indeed it was, right out of "Keystone Cops," in which everyone bopped everyone else over the head with their nightsticks and drove their cars into one another's.

Now there isn't an issue among the Lakers. Everyone know who's No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and so on down the line.

"It's a really easy team to work with as far as that goes," says Coach Phil Jackson.

"You know we have idiosyncrasies of Ronny [Turiaf], who's a little bit of a character. We have Sasha [Vujacic], who's our pampered player.

"They all have a role here [but] there's nobody you have to keep an eye on, askance."

Actually, Turiaf and Vujacic are an anthill compared to the Himalayan range they had with Shaq and Kobe.

Jackson once consulted a psychologist for advice on Bryant and another time asked a mediator how to chill out Shaq and Kobe.

The mediator said the Lakers should separate them so the team sent both home from practice -- whereupon Bryant had ESPN's Jim Gray go on the air and blast Shaq for him.

So much for professional advice.

"It was also because of a different generation that saw Kobe as a young upstart," Jackson says. "A lot of the guys sided with Shaq because of Kobe's youth.

"Now Kobe's the veteran and he's the guy that's looking over his shoulder saying, 'These kids, this next generation, they sure are pampered.' "

Surprising as it may seem, the Lakers haven't had any confusion or resentment about the hierarchy in the four seasons since O'Neal left.

Nor was there any of the old friction like that in the old O'Neal-Bryant-Jackson triangle with Jackson and Bryant becoming staunch allies.

The difference is now they're also good enough, with a No. 2 guy capable of being a No. 2 guy, a No. 3 guy capable of being a No. 3 and so on down the line.

"Pau [Gasol] was the No. 1 guy in Memphis," says assistant coach Brian Shaw. "He's now the No. 2 guy and he's more comfortable with it than being the guy.

"And Lamar [Odom], who was the No. 2 guy, seems to be more comfortable with being a No. 3 guy. . . .

"Kobe is built for the pressure, he can handle it, but it takes pressure off Pau, it takes the pressure off Lamar. They can just go out and play and the onus rests on Kobe.

"And the other players know the pressure's going to be placed on Kobe and Pau and whatever is left on Lamar. It just opens it up to do what they do.

"So guys like Sasha who are shooters, that's all they have to know -- come in, give some effort on defense and just make open shots when they come their way.

"And that's actually how our team was built when Shaq and Kobe were here. They garnered so much attention that it made it easy for Robert [Horry] and Derek [Fisher] and Rick [Fox] and myself."

Not that you would never want to say that a team with Bryant is beyond drama.

On the bright side for Lakers fans, whatever Bryant did, it was in the hope of one day finding himself in the position he's in now, on a rising power that only figures to get better next season with Andrew Bynum back.

"I'm excited as we all are to get him back in the mix," Bryant said during the Utah series.

"It probably won't be this year but next year you add him, you add Trevor [Ariza] to that mix, it's going to be a hell of a team."

Of course, if the Shaq-Kobe teams bristled with dysfunction, there was one other difference between them and today's Lakers.

The Shaq-Kobe teams were a lot better.

As Boston GM Danny Ainge once said, it was like Wilt Chamberlain playing with Michael Jordan and when it worked, it really worked.

Unfortunately for the Lakers, it worked only intermittently.

This team isn't in the same class. On the other hand, it goes out and competes every day.

"The way this team is built," Fisher says, "if we had all that stuff hanging over us, I don't think this particular team right now would be able to figure out all that stuff and play well.

"So the fact that we're just playing basketball now and enjoying our time with each other gives me confidence we don't have to wait to figure out if we can win championships. We can win championships now."

For Fisher, the healer in both eras, the painful part is knowing they might have strung titles from there to here, the way the Celtics did in the '50s and '60s.

"It's less amazing and more disappointing," Fisher says. "Not being able at any point to stop and recognize how good we had it and the fact that you're currently playing on maybe the most dominant team in basketball in the last five to 10 years, [which] could become the most dominant team if you work it out and stick together.

"And we kind of squandered that away."

Happily for the Lakers, who have glimpsed the stars and stared into the abyss, it ain't over until it's over.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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