The difficulty of chasing a three-peat for Phil Jackson’s Lakers is being multiplied by the team’s decision to stand relatively pat in the year of “The Decision.”
LeBron James did more than tarnish his image this offseason. He reshaped and re-energized the league.
The Lakers are finding this out one demoralizing victory at a time. Their much-anticipated Christmas Day showdown with James and the Heat exposed a not-so-well-kept secret.
“These games mean more to our opponents than they do to us,” Kobe Bryant bitched in the aftermath of the Heat’s 96-80 victory, which dropped LA to 21-9 and left the Lakers idling at just one victory against opponents who are currently above .500.
“Part of the problem is we’re cocky,” Lamar Odom added. “We feel we shouldn’t lose any games.”
Overconfidence is certainly part of the Lakers’ problem. Regular-season focus and energy play a big role, too, especially for a team bidding for a third consecutive title. Two of Jackson’s previous three three-peat teams saw their regular-season records dip from the preceding seasons.
Orchestrating a three-peat is arguably the most difficult coaching task in the modern NBA.
“Sure it is,” Jackson told me as he walked back to his locker room. “The energy and the intensity don’t feel like a playoff game (to the Lakers).”
Saturday felt like a playoff game to the Heat, 18,000 spectators and the Hollywood elite crammed into Staples Center.
The Lakers don’t realize this yet, but they’ve chosen the absolute worst year to suffer a championship hangover.
LeBron James, with his self-indulgent, take-my-talents-to-South Beach TV show, improved the entire league. The intensity of regular-season play is at its highest since the days when Magic, Larry, Michael, Isiah, Karl, Barkley, Hakeem and Ewing competed for the same title.
LeBron set off a free-agent frenzy and raised the regular-season stakes.
The Bulls (Carlos Boozer), Knicks (Amar’e Stoudemire), Celtics (Shaquille O’Neal), Mavericks (Tyson Chandler) and now Magic (Jason Richardson, Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu) all made significant moves to counter Miami’s Big Three. You could argue the Spurs added the old Manu Ginobili, now healthy, and finally are getting the real Richard Jefferson one year after acquiring him.
In an offseason of leaguewide upheaval, the Lakers picked up a couple of role players, Steve Blake and Matt Barnes, and are stuck with a distracted, championship-ring-raffling Ron Artest.
Not good. Kobe can feel it, the sense of urgency evident across the league, the game-to-game intensity that makes December losses hurt like April ones. Kobe lost his temper and got tossed against the Milwaukee Bucks. He spent three days privately stewing, declining to speak to the media.
Saturday, with the Heat ahead by double digits late, he bickered with LeBron on the court and then called out his teammates off it.
“You can’t have two rings and be satisfied with that,” Bryant complained.
It’s human nature to relax after achieving your ultimate goal.
Artest gave the Lakers energy and a purpose last season. He wanted a ring. He was a big addition as the Lakers tried to repeat. He started 77 games and averaged 34 minutes last season.
You think Pau Gasol and Odom are trying to win one for Blake and Barnes? You think Blake and Barnes inspire anyone on the Lakers to give extra effort?
Los Angeles’ record (21-9) is fool’s gold. The Lakers have yet to play Dallas, San Antonio, Boston, Orlando, New York, Atlanta, New Orleans or Oklahoma City. That’s eight of the 13 teams with records above .500. The Lakers are one of those 13. That leaves Miami, Chicago, Denver and Utah.
LA’s signature victory came a month ago when it knocked off the Boozer-less Bulls.
Yeah, we should’ve seen the Christmas collapse coming.
“No surprise to us as a coaching staff,” Jackson said of the Heat laugher.
He added: “Just be patient with us. We’ll be fine.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
Jackson’s stated goal from the outset was for the Lakers to make it to the playoffs healthy. Andrew Bynum (recovering from a knee scope) is the second-half-of-the-season acquisition Jackson is counting on. Right now Bynum is playing seven or eight minutes a half. He’s logging few minutes in combination with Gasol.
If Bynum is ready to go 30 minutes a night in April, the Lakers could look quite different.
But will they feel any different? Will they be able to match the hunger of the Spurs, Mavericks, Celtics and Heat?