The Los Angeles Lakers should be accustomed to tumult, conflict and controversy by now. What the venerable NBA franchise must get used to in the post-Shaq era is enduring all that drama with little hope of winning a championship.
In the Lakers' first season since trading Shaquille O'Neal, the game's most dominant player, the team finds itself 13-9, in third place in the Western Conference's Pacific Division and struggling to find an identity and an inside game.
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Antawn Jamison has helped the Wizards tremendously, on the court and off.
Lakers star Kobe Bryant continues to take his shots at former teammates and coaches.
_____ Who's the Man? _____
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The club the Washington Wizards face tonight at Staples Center is hardly the basketball colossus that won three consecutive NBA championships (2000-2002) and stirred fear in the hearts of opponents. Kobe Bryant is the only survivor of an offseason purge that split up four likely future Hall of Fame players and forced out coach Phil Jackson. Bryant famously feuded with Shaq. His latest war of words is with former teammate Karl Malone, a free agent, whom he has publicly accused of making sexual advances toward his wife. Through his agent, Malone denied the charges and said that he would not return to the Lakers.
Not only did the Lakers lose a chance to pick up a seasoned and still-effective big man, but they also must worry about whether the dustup is a distraction to a team with nine new faces -- players still uninitiated to the Lakers' upheaval.
"I think it's a little bit of a distraction -- it certainly doesn't help anything," said Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni. "But they are professionals and I'm sure they'll handle it. "
Bryant, 26, played last season with sexual assault charges hanging over his head after a hotel employee in Eagle, Colo., accused him of rape in June 2003. Bryant said the woman consented to sex. The charges were later dropped.
Columnists and pundits slammed the Lakers' guard for publicizing Malone's alleged advances, when Bryant had already acknowledged his own infidelity.
The man who could dart out of a courtroom and onto a basketball court to help the Lakers win the Western Conference championship has appeared impervious to outside distractions. But he seemed unsettled this week during interviews for ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" and "NBA Shootaround." Bryant answered questions about his separate beefs with Malone, O'Neal and Jackson, who accused Bryant of prodding the Lakers to rid the team of him and O'Neal.
The Lakers declined to extend Jackson's contract, the coach said in his recent book. The club traded O'Neal to the Miami Heat.
"I didn't chase anybody out," Bryant told ESPN, adding that he would be willing to reconcile with O'Neal. "Off the court, I have nothing against him. I'd definitely love to sit down and talk with him. I don't know, maybe that'll happen."
Bryant said he has tried to apologize to O'Neal for mentioning O'Neal's name during a police interview last year. On Wednesday night, the 32-year-old O'Neal declined to answer whether he would accept Bryant's apology. After last year's rape accusation, Bryant told police that O'Neal paid hush money to women he was involved with.
The 7-foot-1 center has a week to think about it. The Lakers play the Heat on Christmas Day.
"It's going to be a very different day," O'Neal said Wednesday. "I hope we can show that we're a better team." O'Neal and guard Dwyane Wade are among the best duos in the Eastern Conference, while the Lakers are still struggling to find a suitable complement to Bryant.
Bryant is averaging a team-leading 27.1 points per game, but Lamar Odom, the former Heat forward who was picked up in the O'Neal trade, has started slowly. His scoring average of 14.1 points is down from last season's 17.1 points per game with the Heat. By contrast, O'Neal averaged 21.5 points a night last season. He's averaging 20.7 this season.
Without O'Neal, Malone and Gary Payton, who was traded to Boston, the Lakers' offensive production has slipped. The team is shooting 43.8 percent and is scoring an average of 96.9 points a game this season, down from last season's 45.4 percent and 98.2 points per game.
The Lakers have dropped games to Phoenix, Orlando and Chicago, clubs that Los Angeles once regularly roughed up.
Does O'Neal follow the plight of his former team?
"Never," he said. "Anybody that had anything to do with me has been fired or traded . . . or cut."