Aside from a few mumbles here and there, Shaquille O'Neal has been silent for two weeks regarding the state of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Last time he said anything of import, it was to rip his team's role players following a loss at Golden State. O'Neal's comments backfired, angering his teammates and fueling a slide in which the Lakers had lost four of five going into Friday night's game at Philadelphia.
"If it was his intention to motivate his teammates, that's all right because this is a professional game and the guys can take that stuff," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said.
"But the result is there is fallout, and players are conscious of their behavior and play, being passive on the floor at times, wanting to do the right thing and fulfill the right job role that they have. And I think that's one of the things that has made us hesitant rather than active and aggressive."
Being at the bottom of the Pacific Division and a long way from .500 is uncharted territory for the three-time defending champions.
A year ago, the Lakers started 16-1 before going on cruise control, knowing they could turn their games up a notch in the playoffs.
This season they are digging themselves a hole that will likely cause them to start the playoffs on the road -- if they make the playoffs. Nine teams in the Western Conference began the weekend at or above .500.
"I've never had this kind of a situation coaching in the NBA," Jackson said, "but I've been in this position before in my coaching career. We're not living up to what we can do."
During their recent skid, the Lakers lost by 27 to the Nets, by 16 to the Hornets and four to the Warriors. Earlier in the season they lost by 12 at Miami and 26 at Dallas.
Jackson said O'Neal's recent silence is driven by his inability to explain exactly what's wrong.
As for Jackson, he has resorted to pleading with his players.
"I've asked them pointedly during the last week to try to summon up what it's like to give to a playoff game, which is a level you don't have to expect to ask of players with these types of credentials at this time of the season."
Perhaps the biggest factor in the team's slow start was O'Neal's absence for the first 12 games following offseason foot surgery.
But the Lakers haven't been much better since O'Neal's return, going 7-8 as their 7-foot center has tried to play himself into shape.
Against the Nets on Thursday night, the extensive low-post repertoire that O'Neal displayed during the finals was missing. Several times he got the ball within five feet of the hoop and threw up shots that missed badly.
O'Neal can still dunk ferociously, but the Lakers aren't the same team if his bank shots, 6-footers and jump hooks aren't falling.
It was pointed out to Jackson that his old Chicago Bulls teams handled internal adversity much better and he agreed.
Asked why, Jackson jokingly offered an explanation that only he could come up with:
"I think it's a seismograph, energy-coming-from-the-earth thing. Astrologically we don't fit together as a team quite as well as that group did, and the conjunctions of certain planets have kept us apart."
Getting Ready to Rumble
The much-anticipated first meeting of the season between the Lakers and Sacramento Kings is set for Christmas night at Staples Center, part of a doubleheader on ABC matching last year's conference finalists.
The Lakers have become the Kings' nemesis, eliminating them the last three years in the playoffs, including last season's seven-game series in the Western Conference finals. Los Angeles won the final two games, including a Game 7 victory that denied its first finals appearance in 50 years.
"It's a great rivalry, nothing manufactured about it," Kings owner Gavin Maloof said. "They don't like us and we don't like them. That's just the way it is. It's probably the biggest rivalry in all of sports right now."
The rivalry grew more intense two months ago when a preseason game in Los Angeles featured a fight on and off the court between Lakers forward Rick Fox and Kings guard Doug Christie.
Naturally, the Pacific Division Kings are overjoyed with the Lakers' horrible start. Not that they expect it to continue.
"Until they are not in the playoffs, they are still the team to beat," Kings guard Bobby Jackson said.
The back-to-back games Friday and Saturday between the Bulls and Pacers marked the first meetings between the teams since last season's trade that sent Jalen Rose, Travis Best, Norm Richardson and a conditional second-round draft pick to Chicago for Brad Miller, Ron Artest, Ron Mercer and Kevin Ollie.
The trade was the biggest step in the rebuilding process that the Pacers began after their trip to the 2000 NBA Finals.
"The trade made us bigger and tougher and more complete," Indiana Coach Isiah Thomas said. "We needed an identity, something we were going to be known for. I think we're making our mark as a tough, defensive team that's going to fight."
The trade was a surprise to Artest, one of Chicago's two first-round picks in 1999. The Bulls selected Elton Brand first overall and Artest 16th. They were thought to be the cornerstones of Chicago's rebuilding process. Instead they're both gone.
"At first, I was like, 'Why would they trade me?' " Artest said. "But it's the way the league works and you've just got to deal with it."
When Artest channels his aggressiveness toward his game, he becomes one of the toughest and most tenacious defenders in the league.