If anybody can make any sense of what's going on with the Los Angeles Lakers, one would think it would be Phil Jackson. The guy has won nine NBA championship rings as a head coach; nobody has won more. The way Jackson sits there on the bench, ever a study in contemplation, he would have to know, or at least by now have formulated some really deep theories, right? Plus, he's got the whole Zen thing going on, he's created that whole atmosphere conducive to out-of-the-box thinking and problem solving.
So before a game in New Jersey last week, when a reporter asked Jackson about his six-time champion Chicago Bulls and why they never had the perplexing trouble the three-time champion Lakers are having now, you expected something profound, and at the very least insightful.
Here, then, is Phil's answer: "I'd like to embellish on it. But I think it's kind of a seismograph energy coming from the earth, that's what I attribute it to. Astrologically, we don't fit together as a team quite like that [Bulls] group did. And the conjunctions of certain planets have kept us apart."
In a way, it's the perfect answer because it makes about as much sense as the Lakers being 11-18 overall, 8-9 with Shaq in the lineup, and in 11th place in the Western Conference going into today's nationally televised steel-cage Christmas Day showdown with the Sacramento Kings. Ordinarily, the primary story line would be the fact that these two are facing each other for the first time in a regular season game since last year's epic seven-game series that was the de facto championship, and this is also the first meeting since Shaq called the Kings "the Queens." It's also the first time the two will have met under any circumstances since Doug Christie and Rick Fox fought during a preseason game.
But those issues, unthinkably, are sidebars now because of the Lakers' predicament. To fulfill one of Jackson's recently stated and readjusted goals of winning 50 games, the Lakers would have to go 39-14, which is a winning percentage of .735. Just to have the same record as last year's eighth and final playoff team in the Western Conference (44-38), the Lakers would have to go 33-20, which sounds completely reasonable except that only eight teams have a worse record than the Lakers.
After an overtime victory over sorry Toronto the other day, when the Raptors were playing without Vince Carter and Antonio Davis, Lakers forward Robert Horry described to the Los Angeles Times how it felt being taken to OT: "Awful . . . Terrible . . . Just flat-out terrible. You sit there and you wonder why, how?"
It's no longer a slow start; one-third of the games have been played. Shaq and Kobe Bryant, who appear to be playing somewhere near their usual form, have both publicly called out their teammates as being inadequate. Jackson said a few weeks ago it would take until the holidays to iron everything out and really assess the team. Well, the big holiday is here. Sacramento, which has had a ton of injuries to the starters, nonetheless is 22-8, good for the second-best record in the league, after Dallas.
So what's wrong besides the planets not aligning the way Phil Jackson would like them?
A bunch of stuff. Though it's perfectly understandable that Shaq deliberately had to weigh every option considering his injured big toe, an October operation forced him to miss the first two weeks of the season. Players such as Robert Horry (age 32, 153 playoff games in his career), Rick Fox (33, 91 playoff games) and Brian Shaw (36, 116 playoff games) have a whole lot of mileage on them and some nights look tread-worn.
Beyond them, the Samaki Walkers and Deaven Georges don't scare anybody. And because Jerry Buss doesn't have the deep pockets of, say, Mark Cuban, and is already shelling out more than $35 million this year just for the Big Three of Shaq, Kobe and Phil, it doesn't appear that help is on the way. Jackson recently referred to "our socialist cap structure" as making a trade difficult. This becomes particularly important when you consider that while the Lakers have had pretty much the same cast of characters for the two most recent championship runs, the other teams in the league, especially out west, have been stockpiling players to chase the Lakers. Kobe and Shaq may still be the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the NBA, but Dallas, Sacramento, and Indiana clearly have better top eights.
Beyond personnel issues, there's the matter of Tex Winters's vaunted triangle offense being easier to guard now that the league allows zone defense. Beyond even that, we've not seen a team with the same personnel go for four straight championships since the Auerbach Celtics. After each of Chicago's three-peats, Michael Jordan retired. We really don't know, planetary considerations aside, if the Bulls would have had it in them. As Derek Fisher told reporters recently: "This is a tough thing we're trying to do. . . . It's tough to slap guys in the face for four years in a row. It's just tough."
But the Lakers' struggles have given an interminable regular season a compelling story line. It's not unprecedented, a reigning champ -- even a dynasty -- falling apart overnight despite having the essential parts. It's unfair to count the 1969-70 Celtics because Bill Russell retired before that season. It's unfair to count the 1968 Green Bay Packers because even with all those Hall of Famers around, they didn't have Vince Lombardi to coach them after the three-championship run of 1965-67. But there is the case of the 1965 New York Yankees, who after appearing in five straight World Series from 1960 to '64 (winning two of them) dropped to sixth place in a 10-team American League.
It's not extreme, considering how many teams they have to climb over, to suggest that a Lakers turnaround needs to start today, at home, against the Kings. And the NBA certainly could use a classic game to divert some attention from the absurd off-court behavior that has rightly dominated the news in recent days. It's alarming that Golden State's Chris Mills was allowed to slide with a three-game suspension for using his car to block the path of the Trail Blazers' team bus after that game the other night. For using a vehicle and his posse to threaten another team (even one as embarrassingly ill-behaved as Portland), Mills should have been suspended 15 games, minimum. Instead, he got half the penalty Rick Fox got (six games) for fighting in a tunnel with Christie, which brings us full circle.
Fox told the L.A. Times this week: "I don't know Doug Christie, so it'd be hard to say I have a dislike for him. . . . [But] he's a Sacramento King. And obviously, the Sacramento Kings have been pretty good to us the last few years. So it'd be hard for me to hate him."
The Lakers don't have the game right now and appear to be in serious trouble. But three years of dominating the NBA and a holiday date with a rival apparently allows the champs still to have the swagger.