Team Turmoil? It's how the Lakers roll
Yes, they've experienced their fair share of drama lately. So what else is new?
PHOENIX -- In just one week, the Los Angeles Lakers manufactured as much drama as the "Real Housewives" of New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta combined. There was the sparring between Phil Jackson and Mark Cuban, who called him Jeannie Buss' boy toy. There was the back-and-forth with Ron Artest at practice that was either loud or simply a little contentious, depending on whom you believe. There was that old staple, Phil giving the business to Kobe, and a new one, Pau Gasol giving the business to Kobe (without naming him) for shooting too much.
The only thing the Lakers didn't have was their own reality show, cameras stationed all over the locker room, the practice gym and the team hotel to give us tight shots and sound of every beef. Oh wait, reality TV is about to be a Lakers reality. Lamar Odom is about to star in his own reality show Sunday nights on E! in prime time, he revealed Wednesday night. After saying he envisioned something "funny, sitcom-ish, entertaining," Odom, when he was asked whether Jackson or Jerry Buss had voiced any concerns, said, "Ah, yeah and I respect that. Entertainment and sports we're all in the industry."
For the record, Odom says that if any of his teammates "want to give me access, fine. If not, fine. I don't want to get in anyone's way, make anyone uncomfortable."
But if you think all this drama is making the Lakers uncomfortable, think again. They're close to completely unfazed by any or all of it. It's not that they give the appearance of not caring; they frankly don't give a damn. The principal parties -- Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher -- have lived through a decade of dramatic episodes, some life-altering. Remember, Kobe dealt with a rape allegation until the case was dropped. There was the entire Shaq-Kobe mess and divorce that undermined a three-time champion. And beyond that, there was the time Kobe suffered a miserable playoff failure against the Suns, as the Lakers lost in 2006 after leading the series 3-1. Utah Jazz fans still accuse Fisher, wrongly, of lying about the circumstances of tending to his daughter's very serious illness.
The Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees have many, many more players in their locker rooms, but neither club can catch the Lakers when it comes to theater.
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Which is why the wrinkles in the past week or so, even the double-digit losses at home to Milwaukee, Miami and Memphis, have been greatly overstated. There's context to absolutely everything, and the context here is, "This is how the Lakers roll." This is standard operating procedure for them. Walking down the hallway back to his team's locker room a half-hour before tipoff of L.A's narrow victory over the Suns in Phoenix on Wednesday night, Jackson allowed a glimpse into what he thinks of yet another season chock full of fuss. When I asked him how he felt about his team at that moment, about the season, the episodes both dramatic and petty, Jackson smiled a fairly broad smile and said, "I'm enjoying this year. I am. It's been fun."
He paused. He wanted to make sure I got it. He almost seemed to be reveling in the creative chaos. This wasn't a message to his players or a way to spin his way out of a long-distance wrestling match with Cuban or his ongoing attempt to get what he feels he needs out of Artest.
"I'm really enjoying this year," he repeated.
When I asked whether he finds this year any different from all the others, he answered, "No. It's not any different. In fact, it's probably necessary to spike the interest of the team."
This dovetails nicely with what Jackson said earlier in the day when he told ESPN's game broadcast crew that the Lakers' on-the-court struggles of late "were not so much fatigue as it is boredom."
Jackson pointed out that the Chicago Bulls had constant drama, much of it revolving around Dennis Rodman. There was the Michael Jordan gambling trip to Atlantic City, remember, and that was during a playoff series against the Knicks.
The larger point here, and perhaps the only one worth making until the playoffs begin, is that the Lakers play through exactly these kinds of storms all the time and probably will this season as well.
Odom, when asked whether there was any perceptible drop in the team's confidence, said, "We are confident, man. I know that kind of attitude can lead to overconfidence at times, and it can come back to bite you in the butt. If you're asking how far away we are, we're not that far away."
Derek Fisher is maybe the most reasoned person in sports. His forecasts and assessments about the Lakers specifically, pro basketball generally, are right on the money historically. And Fisher says that although the Lakers are not about to sleepwalk through the regular season content to finish fourth or fifth in the Western Conference, Jackson, more than any other coach in the NBA, realizes the pace that has to be kept given that the core group of his team, unlike any other in the league, has played in three consecutive championship rounds. The Celtics haven't played until the last day of the season in three straight years, nor have the Magic nor have the Cavaliers only the Lakers. And maintaining a sane pace, Fisher said, may now necessarily include an ugly loss or two that might not have occurred three, four years ago.
"Only one of our championship teams shot out there and won more than 65 games," Fisher said. "That's not been the way we approached it. Even when Shaq was here, we'd have him coming back from offseason surgery and win 57, 58 games."
The Lakers who matter the most, which is to say Kobe and D-Fish, have had some annoying evenings of late. But they've hardly reached the point of lasting frustration, even if Kobe has dropped a few expletives into his postgame comments. For instance, Kobe, after taking a verbal shot from Gasol last week, exercised great restraint, saying nothing publicly when Gasol missed the shootaround the morning of the loss to Memphis in Los Angeles.
The real question -- "which can't be answered until May/June anyway," Kobe said -- is whether this season is different from all the others precisely because of those three runs to the NBA Finals, because the core group of Lakers have so much mileage on them. The prevailing wisdom around the team, although not in the locker room, is that the Lakers simply look old some evenings, like in the 19-point loss to high-flying Memphis. Those with active imaginations envision the Lakers being run down by a team of young bucks, like Oklahoma City, and left for roadkill.
Of course, young teams never, ever, ever win the NBA championship. Veteran teams stacked with old, wheezing geezers almost always win if they simply remain upright through the playoffs. If the Lakers have a serious concern in early January, it might be that the San Antonio Spurs, an equal in every measurable way, have modernized their approach, inserted a couple of youngbloods into the rotation and appear ready for their fifth championship run. The Spurs are quite capable of beating the Lakers at their best, and it's impossible not to compare the two and where they are now.
The Spurs, who have less drama than any other great basketball team in modern NBA history, also have never won back-to-back championships, which Phil/Kobe/D-Fish have done twice. And the masses don't rush to the Spurs' games, don't buy their jerseys in any great numbers, don't talk about them obsessively or parse their every quote. The Spurs work in relative obscurity, away from sky-is-falling analysis about every loss. The Lakers, meanwhile, work just inside the velvet rope and a few steps off the red carpet, their players likely to make the rundown of "Entertainment Tonight" as easily as "SportsCenter" -- which, no matter how much grumbling you hear in January and no matter how urgent the situation appears now, is a condition perfectly suited to them and their very dramatic ways.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN, and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over three decades with the The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.