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Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Updated: June 21, 10:51 PM ET
Feeling happy in L.A.

By Eric Neel
Page 2

Phil's at the podium explaining himself when the phone rings at my house.

"How do you feel about this? I mean as a fan?" my friend asks.

"I feel good," I say. "I mean, I feel bad about the beads and the crewneck-and-sport-coat combo, of course, but I feel good about the move. Real good. James-Brown-and-horns good."

First, I'm not hung up on the "Why L.A. again?" question. To me, it's obvious this is a whole new thing. The first time there was Shaq, and an expectation of titles just a tweak or two away. This time there's just Kobe, some odd-fitting pieces, and a long shot hope of getting back to the playoffs in the first year or two. Now we get to see Phil do (or try to do) the one thing we've never seen him do: Build something, raise something up from the depths.

Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson
With the Kobe the sole focus of the Lakers' offense, maybe he and Phil will trust each other more this time around.

More than the 10th title, more than the mountain of money, I think he's come back for the challenge, for the chance to say, "Y'all didn't think I could do this, now did you?" (What do you think he meant when he said this was "a story about reconciliation and redemption"?) He's coming back with an edge; less Zen Master, more Man on Fire.

I love this. It makes him more inclined to experiment – he was talking yesterday about full-court presses and the running game, about being "mobile" and "flexible," about "messing around" with things until they find what works – and less inclined to come off like he's already figured things out.

You can make the case that the Lakers of 2000-02, even with the inimitable Daddy on the block, were the Bulls, version 2.0. But the Lakers of 2005-06 are going to be something altogether different.

Second, I'm not worried about when the next Kobe vs. Phil throwdown is coming, because my guess is, it's not. What's Kobe wanted all along? To be the focus, to get Phil's love and attention, to have the Master thinking through, and of, him. Now he gets all that. He is both the grasshopper and The Man.

My hunch is this is going to mean the world to Kobe. He's going to feel needed and trusted, and he's going to respond to that. People are talking about how he'll feel chastened after a year of losing, how he's been beaten down into a position where he'll finally listen to Phil. I don't think that's it. I think he's going to sense that for the first time he and Phil are on something close to level ground. If they bond now, I think it's going to be an us-against-the-world thing with them, two guys leaning on each other, two guys with something to prove.

The Lakers' drama these last few years came in large part from a kind of casual confidence about how good they were, about what they were expected to do. They've got none of that now. There's no fat on the bone, no expectation of dominance or even great success. They're in guerilla mode now, improvising on the run, scraping for every inch of territory they can get. There isn't going to be time or energy to mess with psychology and ego like before.

Third, Lamar Odom gets better with this, because he gets some true point-forward opportunities and some show-me-what-you-got defensive challenges.

Fourth, the man coaches defense, the glaring absence of which was the real reason for the Lakers' demise this season. People are always talking about the offense and the triangle and such, but the '96 Bulls and 2000 Lakers (according to stats analysis guru Dean Oliver) were the 10th- and 11th-best defensive clubs all time. The 2004-05 Lakers on the other hand, were 29th in the league in points given up per 100 possessions, just barely better than the Hawks.

Fifth, I'm guessing Phil tells Caron Butler how good he can be and Caron believes him, he convinces Chris Mihm he could be better than Luc Longley, which is actually better than you might think, and he lets Brian Cook know, in no uncertain terms, that while the jump shooting is nice and all, he'd best get his big ol' backside down on the block and rebound a ball or three but quick.

Sixth, this means more high-quality smackdowns of the Kings.

And seventh?

Well, Jeannie's happy, which means Phil's happy, which means I'm happy.

Duh.

Eric Neel still plays hoops in his 1987 Lakers championship T-shirt.