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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Lakers' problems aren't internal, and they're worse than you might think

Their recent struggles aren't about Kobe Bryant, or Phil Jackson, or Pau Gasol's attention span, or 'distractions' like Lamar Odom's upcoming reality show. It's simpler, and deeper, than that — they're older, slower and don't defend very well.

January 08, 2011|Mark Heisler
  • All-Stars Kobe Bryant (24) and Pau Gasol (16) give the Lakers plenty of firepower on offense, but each is aging fast and along with their teammates might lack the defense and team speed to win a third consecutive NBA title.
All-Stars Kobe Bryant (24) and Pau Gasol (16) give the Lakers plenty of firepower… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

Rounding up the usual Lakers . . .

If times are hard after three carefree seasons . . . even if they didn't seem that way . . . Kobe Bryant must be shooting too much, or too little.

Or Phil Jackson is wearing them out, in his 11th and last Lakers season, or hurting their feelings.

Feelings?

What is this, a wedding?

If hurting professional players' feelings is a problem, someone better give LeBron James last rites.

Unfortunately for the Lakers, Phil's mouth and Kobe's shots aren't vaguely the problem.

Nor is it Pau Gasol's iPhone going off on time so he can make shoot-around.

(Unless Gasol can take it on the court to alert him to rotate on defense.)

Nor is it the D-word or words (dysfunction, distractions), despite Lamar Odom's priceless defense for dragging them into his upcoming reality show, "Lamar and Khloe":

"The Lakers make decisions that they need to make. Lamar is the same."

You can imagine how upsetting this is, with the sanctity of their locker room threatened not only by Phil's books but Lamar's cameras!

Right, who even notices?

I'm proud to be the first to ever call the Lakers dysfunctional. Modest as that was, as Ray Wylie Hubbard, the country singer known for writing the throwaway ditty "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother," once noted, "Careers have been built on less."

Back then, Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant were constantly at each other's throats, or someone's throats.

For you newer Lakers fans, this is nothing like that.

Any or all of the above would be preferable to the Lakers' real, tangible problem:

They are older and slower, and even when they were younger and quicker, didn't defend unless psyched to the gills.

As for that Laker Age that seemed to have years left, after two title runs and three Finals appearances, without ever having been at full strength. . . .

They're now a hulking, low-energy team, bewildered at being challenged in the West at this late date.

The previous two seasons, the Lakers were out of first place in the West for 30 days, none after Dec. 1.

This season, they have yet to show they're as good as the Spurs or Mavericks, and may have to play them back to back in the playoffs if they can't catch both.

It's not Mission: Impossible for a great team — which the Lakers may yet be if they're ever at that elusive full strength with Andrew Bynum healthy.

It may also be the Lakers lack the legs . . . or hunger . . . to function after Christmas, any more than Cinderella had a royal coach she could take out after midnight.

Whatever Bryant's foibles, it's not about his toning down his ferocity, but teammates' dialing up theirs.

In recent years, he fell in behind Jackson's Easy Rider lead, but, as both know, this is no time for that.

Not that he's the Kobe of Old, who could pick the team up by the scruff of its neck and carry it.

Last week, he told the New York Post's Peter Vecsey, "I have very little cartilage under my right kneecap, it's almost bone on bone. . . .

"Until I got it drained the first time during the opening round against the Thunder I could not bend that knee at all. . . .

"It was swollen as hell and it hurt like hell. Luckily, things got a lot better once I had the procedure."

Boy, last season gets more exciting all the time!

Talking about how limited Bryant was last spring, Jackson recently added something he hadn't mentioned:

"Surprisingly, we came out on top."

Of course, the local media asked Bryant about his knee daily, getting only denials, not to mention frowns.

Four seasons into this glory run, the Lakers are all four years older.

(By the way, the problem isn't Derek Fisher allowing penetration, which is all anyone talks about. The problem is a defensive scheme that requires focus and anticipation and putting in so little, particularly the big men they funnel drivers to.)

It didn't help when Trevor Ariza's agent stole him away to Houston, which has since sent him to New Orleans, messing up Ariza's career and the Lakers' first unit.

Athletic, energetic, emerging as a shooter, Ariza was their perfect small forward.

It's not Ron Artest's fault, but he's a bigger, slower streak shooter, which made him a bad fit from the get-go.

Happily, Ron-Ron paid off his $34-million contract in Game 7 against the Celtics, the biggest win in Lakers history.

As veteran as the Lakers are, they're younger than Jackson's Bulls in 1998 when they won their sixth and last title with Michael Jordan 35, Scottie Pippen 32, Ron Harper 34 and Dennis Rodman 37.

The Bulls were hard-nosed defenders who brought it every night, going 203-43 over three seasons.

The soft-nosed Lakers went 179-67 the last three seasons, cheating the devil.

If they want to go on from here, as the hottie bartenders say in the Miller Lite spots, man up.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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