Lakers take indifferent path
The concerns of many don't affect the back-to-back champions
LOS ANGELES -- It was, thinking back on it, a hell of a thing to say on a random Tuesday in the middle of August.
It wasn't, now or then, an accident.
"As of now," Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss said, "I feel there's a good chance this could be the best team we've ever had."
As messages go, this one was fairly easy to decipher.
Just take out all that wishy-washy stuff about there being a "good chance" and replace the word "could" with "should."
"You hate to say it that way," Buss continued. "But you get to a spot where you have to win it all to be happy."
Given an ultimatum like that from their owner on a random Tuesday in August, most teams would run to the gym and start getting extra shots up by Wednesday morning.
Or, at the very least, find a way to take care of Keyon Dooling and the Milwaukee Bucks on a random Tuesday in December.
"I'd hope so," Lakers assistant coach Frank Hamblen said as he tried to leave Staples Center before the stench of Tuesday's 98-79 loss to the Bucks sunk into his suit. "But maybe they've done too much and they can't get themselves back up again?"
That's one explanation.
The Lakers wouldn't be the first team to come down with a case of the "blahs" after an 11-day road trip and have to answer 100 postgame questions about why it happened again.
All of those questions are fair after a team with a nine-man rotation and five former Clippers wins by 19 on the opponent's home court.
But what if those are the wrong questions?
For years, observers have wondered if the Lakers don't know they're a shooting star.
(Yes, shooting star, not superstar. Everybody gets those lyrics wrong.)
But what if the real question is do they care?
Rarely has a team been so talented for so many years and intimidated its opponents as infrequently as these Lakers do.
They simply don't seem to care what other teams think of them.
So-called "statement games" such as "LeGame," scheduled for 2 p.m. on Christmas Day against the Miami Heat, barely move their needle.
"Nah," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said when asked if the Lakers need to "send a message" to the Heat on Saturday. "I think it's a big game in terms of excitement and anticipation and the marquee matchup in terms of the star power. That's what makes it a big game. But I don't know about using it as a measuring stick. It may be different in their locker room, but in my opinion, for us, 'No.'"
There was a confidence behind Fisher's sentiment.
Maybe even a dismissiveness.
The Heat may have made a lot of noise over the summer in signing LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as free agents, but they've accomplished very little so far.
It takes a couple of championships to get the Lakers' attention.
Only two other teams currently fit that description: the Boston Celtics and the San Antonio Spurs.
Still, you can't help but wonder how much better the Lakers would be if they tried to not only beat their opponents every night, but to beat them down.
If they took a page from the Celtics book and added in an extra stare down or elbow to the chops every so often and let the fear and loathing start working for them.
It's hard to say how to coach such a character trait. Mostly, a team either has it in its DNA or it doesn't.
What's strange is that Phil Jackson's Bulls teams had it, while his Lakers teams do not.
Hamblen, an assistant coach during both dynasties, has some idea why.
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"You need self-starters," Hamben said. "I know Fish and Kobe, those guys are. But they're the captains of our team.
"It's tough to get the new guys to be in that same boat. Every team is different. We're a different team from last year, with all the new players.
"Those Bulls teams, they had great leadership with Scottie [Pippen] and Michael [Jordan]. That's leadership with great players. They practiced hard, and if somebody got out of line, they took care of it."
And the Lakers?
Kobe and Fisher have tried to "take care of it" on several occasions already this season. Fisher publicly called his teammates out after a lethargic win over the Timberwolves earlier this month then ripped them behind closed doors after an ugly win over the Clippers.
Bryant generally lets his stare downs and frustrated ejections speak for him.
But for some reason, their actions aren't sinking in.
Not enough anyway.
This team has proven it can win championships without being feared.
It'll continue to operate that way until proven wrong.
And besides, as Buss even said, "You hate to say it that way. But you get to a spot where you have to win it all to be happy."
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.