By MATT “MONEY” SMITH FOXSportsWest.com | PRIME TICKET Feb. 18, 2011
Listless. Disinterested. Unmotivated. Individualistic. Selfish. Not likable. Not to be laconic, but I could fill a whole page with one- or two-word sentences to describe the Lakers’ play as of late, and none of them would be flattering.
No matter the sport, you always hear players say winning the first one was indeed tough, but nothing compared with the challenge of defending their championship. Considering that statement, perhaps some would cut the Lakers a bit of slack.
Not me. Protecting the title as King of the NBA mountain should be exigent because an opponent raises its level of play, not because the champs have lowered theirs. But consecutive losses in Charlotte and to the Cavaliers have convinced me of the latter.
I moved to Los Angeles in 1991. I left the bitter cold of the Midwest to see the ocean . . . literally. My dorm room at Pepperdine University had a million-dollar view of the Pacific. I left the city of big shoulders, the wind, sleet and snow, and my cocoon of one-sided sports perspective was also left in the dust. Pepperdine was populated by no less than 70% Californians, and most of them loved their Lakers. It was 1991 and the team had just fallen to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals, so you could imagine I felt like I was taking on the world when it came to talking basketball.
They loved that Lakers team. They loved James Worthy and Vlade Divac. They appreciated the work ethic of A.C. Green and Byron Scott. They even thought Sedale Threatt would be serviceable after the terribly sad and tragic departure of the greatest point guard in the history of the game, Magic Johnson.
The next few years were beyond exciting for me, but mighty tough on most of my friends. The Bulls were cruising to one championship after another, and Michael Jordan was establishing himself as the best player the game had ever known.
Meanwhile the Lakers were living in lottery land, posting sub-.500 records and searching for a post-Magic identity. Because I loved basketball and I couldn’t see the Bulls on a regular basis, once I graduated from school I managed to convince my employer (Polygram Records) that we should get Lakers tickets for the office. With the team struggling in consecutive years, there was no waiting list, there was no sellout streak at the Forum, so it was as simple as picking up the phone and telling the rep where you wanted to sit. In 1995, I got four tickets in Section 21, Row L.
That season I watched a starting five of Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Cedric Ceballos, Elden Campbell and Vlade Divac play some of the most inspiring basketball I’ve ever witnessed. The team played hard, the team played together, and you could tell while watching them on the court they had each other’s back. They got bounced by the defending-champion Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, but they had nothing to be ashamed of. They played their asses off.
As a matter of fact, they won just three fewer games than the team they put on the floor the following season, one that included Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. It was a testament to the wisdom of Aristotle when he said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
To this day, after living in Southern California for two decades, I cite that Jones-led Lakers squad as my favorite. Understand, I wasn’t here for the Showtime Lakers or the Jerry West Lakers, so my sample size is limited. But more than you would expect, I hear the same things from the most dedicated of fans. This city really appreciated that particular squad because of what it embodied.
This season, this Lakers team has very little of that juju working. What makes it most frustrating for the fans is it’s nearly the same team that had it in spades when it won the championship in 2009. After being humiliated by the Celtics in the ’08 Finals, that Lakers team set out to do everything it could to rid itself of that disappointment. They played the most dyed-in-the-wool basketball of their careers. They were 23-5 on Christmas Day and defeated the Celtics in the middle of a six-game win streak. They lost back-to-back games just three times that season and finished the season 65-17. The regular season meant something to them because they knew if they were to face the Celtics again, they needed to have that home court for games one and two.
This year, for one reason or another, the carrot isn’t there; the motivation doesn’t exist. I can understand an occasional loss, even at home, to a team like Sacramento or Milwaukee that gets the best of them on a given night. But there are too many indicators that this team doesn’t care. They don’t have the passion to play basketball, not only for themselves, but more importantly for each other. We’re just at the All-Star break, and they already have two different three-game losing streaks and have dropped four in a row to three teams that aren’t even in the playoff picture.
They play absolutely no help defense, which is one of the biggest indicators of a team playing for one another. You’ll hear assistant coaches and former players scream at the top of their lungs to “help the helper” and to make sure “when the helper is helping, help the guy who’s helping the helper help.” That’s getting someone’s back, protecting their shortcoming on a given play at the most important end of the floor. Have you listened to some of their comments after games lately? They’re borderline backbiting and without question embarrassing.
When Phil Jackson walks out of a press conference after uttering just two sentences and not taking questions, it leads to Kobe Bryant not speaking to the media for two games straight. This should be Jackson’s farewell tour. A video should grace the scoreboard in every arena he visits for the last time paying tribute to the greatest coach in the history of the NBA. Instead he’s being castigated for leading this underachieving crew.
Jackson said after the win over the Celtics last week when his team has it going he’ll take them against anyone. Considering their talent, that’s hard to dispute. There is no team with more going for it when it’s healthy and motivated. If somehow you could suck the identity and passion of this year’s Chicago Bulls and insert that into this Lakers team, they just might go 82-0. Instead we have a supremely gifted bunch of players that choose to play hard some nights and completely abstain from others.
With the Lakers possessing considerable basketball skills, they could still win a championship despite that sort of attitude.
But that doesn’t mean we have to like it — or congratulate them for it.