Tuesday, November 25, 2008

NBA inside - Lakers for the champion

PHOENIX – Shaquille O’Neal walked off the Phoenix Suns’ practice court and into the arms of Phil Jackson, wrapping his old coach in a hug. He whispered a few words in Jackson’s ear then gave him a kiss that left sweat pooling on Jackson’s cheek and brow. “You know I wouldn’t do you like that,” O’Neal cooed.
This is how it goes with Shaq. He raps about Kobe Bryant smelling his ass. He calls San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich a coward. He says Jackson orchestrated the riff between him and Kobe. And then he says he was joking or taken out of context, or both. He’s forever 36 going on 13, and that’s what makes him so lovable. The Big Eraser, making history then deleting it as he sees fit.
By the time Kobe and Phil arrived at US Airways Center Thursday evening, Shaq had already waxed nostalgic about his time with the Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe? He and Kobe never had problems. Kobe called him fat and he called Kobe selfish, but evidently those were just terms of endearment. Phil? How could he ever say anything bad about Phil? Phil always took care of him. Had the three of them stayed together, Shaq guesses they would have won several more championships.
Bryant didn’t spend nearly as much time reminiscing, and there’s a reason for that: Why waste time dwelling on the past when your future looks so bright?
After Thursday’s 105-92 rout of the Phoenix Suns, the biggest question facing the Lakers is whether they’ll find someone in the Western Conference to challenge them. Extending the search into Utah’s Wasatch Mountains might be the last hope for locating a worthy rival.
“I was telling Luke [Walton] that this might be the first season I average 31 minutes because we’ve been blowing people out,” Bryant said. “I’ve been sitting the whole fourth quarter. That’s pretty amazing.”
The Lakers can thank O’Neal for that. His departure gave them the flexibility to create this impressive roster. O’Neal has the one championship he added to his résumé since leaving Los Angeles, but the Lakers aren’t exactly crying about the terms of their breakup.
The popular theory suggests that had the Lakers kept O’Neal they would have won at least one more title. But even that might be a stretch. Their last championship came in 2002 and making the ’04 NBA Finals required Derek Fisher’s .4 miracle. By then, the Lakers’ supporting cast had begun to show its age.
On Thursday, Jackson said the decision to trade O’Neal was “purely an economic situation with our owner.” Had O’Neal lowered his asking price for a contract extension, Jackson said, he would likely still be a Laker, regardless of his ongoing feud with Bryant.
“It wasn’t anything about their personalities,” Jackson said.
Few people believe that. Bryant was a free agent that summer, and despite his assertion otherwise, it was widely assumed he would have left had O’Neal stayed. As it was, he almost left anyway, flirting with both the Chicago Bulls and the neighboring Clippers.
With O’Neal’s salary no longer clogging their salary cap, the Lakers set about building the league’s deepest roster. They missed the playoffs their first season without Shaq, but that netted them the lottery pick to use on Andrew Bynum. Give credit to Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak and his front-office staff. Kupchak made one mistake, trading Caron Butler to the Washington Wizards for Kwame Brown, and he cleaned that up last season when Brown helped land Pau Gasol. After Bryant chafed at the length of the rebuilding process, Kupchak brought back Fisher – who had left in the summer of 2004 for a lucrative contract with the Golden State Warriors – to give the team another veteran guide.
“We were all at different places in our careers and it’s very difficult to try and keep that together,” Fisher said. “Think about where we are now compared to then …
“The three years I was away from the Lakers just gave me a greater appreciation for where we are now and the value that you feel as an athlete when you are a winner. Nothing replaces that. There’s no contract, no amount of money that replaces the feeling of being the best.”
O’Neal knows the feeling. Now he finds himself staring up at the Lakers. With eight victories in their first 12 games, the Suns had hoped to measure themselves against the conference’s defending champs. Turns out they needed an odometer rather than a yardstick.
While most West teams would be happy to own an 8-5 record, the Suns admit they’re still searching for an identity, caught between their seven-seconds-or-less past and new coach Terry Porter’s insistence they pound the ball into O’Neal. In the process, they have marginalized Steve Nash. On Thursday, he didn’t score his first points until midway through the third quarter. Raja Bell, who has previously questioned the new inside-out philosophy, politely declined to answer any questions about the Suns’ offense, adhering to the age-old wisdom that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
O’Neal naturally has no problem with the ball going to him, claiming the only thing separating him from his Lakers days is “lesser shots.” “For an old man,” he said, “I still demand a double- and triple-team.”
O’Neal does do that on occasion. But as well as he’s played this season, the Suns can’t depend on him to be a game-changing force every night, at least not until they learn to better space their offense around him. The Lakers swarmed O’Neal often Thursday and the Suns didn’t make them pay. Afterward, O’Neal gave a gracious nod to his opponent.
“They’re the best team,” O’Neal said.
That says something about how far the Lakers have come. For now, Shaq can answer the what-ifs. Kobe doesn’t need to look back on his glory days. Not with so many more seemingly still ahead of him.

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