Answering Lakers' biggest questions
Should Kobe Bryant play this season? He's at least earned the chance to see if he can handle it.
HONOLULU -- Kobe Bryant didn't take many shots in public during his days in Hawaii. He didn't make many of those shots, either.
Only at the end was there a hint of the usual Kobe. Before retreating to a private weight room, he stood in the corner near the Lakers' bench and asked for one more ball.
"One for good luck," Bryant announced, backing up to NBA distance.
That one he rose up and swished.
It wasn't exactly the most clutch triple Bryant has ever hit, but it allowed him to leave the floor with a slightly better feeling. That put him more in line with the rest of the Lakers' veterans, who boarded a return flight to the mainland Thursday sounding upbeat about their week here, despite the daily intrusion of anywhere from 50 to 100 pressmen on the Kobe Watch.
The following examines the four biggest questions L.A. had coming into training camp with its four future Hall of Famers, and where the Lakers stand on the answers:
Question 1: How did Kobe handle the media frenzy?
It's difficult to imagine anyone handling it better. After the initial furor about his late arrival, when he declined to fly on the team's charter for veterans and missed a team dinner and a day of practice, Bryant did three days' worth of interviews. He answered more than 60 questions in the first session. Without any guarantees, and without yet knowing specifics such as a trial date, Bryant made it clear that he'll try as hard as he can to play the full season, even in the face of what already ranks as unprecedented scrutiny for a professional athlete.
"Do I look like a quitter?" he asked.
What Bryant needs now is time to work his way back into playing shape and the space to deal with the task of balancing his legal travails against the very public demands of his occupation. He's generally getting that support from his teammates and his bosses, after some early whispers of discontent.
There have been a few calls in the media for Bryant to sit out the season, and even an admission from coach Phil Jackson that he had contemplated the idea of gauging Michael Jordan's interest in a comeback should Bryant elect to go on hiatus at some point. Yet for all he has done for the franchise, helping the Lakers to three straight championships after a drought of more than a decade, Bryant deserves every chance to see if he can make it work. He has only been back to work for a few days, after the most tumultuous summer imaginable. Unless this becomes a yo-yo situation, where Bryant is constantly leaving and rejoining the team because of his other court obligations, the subject of Kobe replacements shouldn't even be broached.
And Jackson admitted as much after the Jordan story surfaced, saying: "For all practical purposes, Kobe is going to play the season. That's what we want."
It should be noted that, for the most part, support for Bryant has been quite tangible. Several Lakers players said going into camp that they would do everything possible to make their inner circle a safe haven for No. 8, and newcomers Gary Payton and Karl Malone are leading the way. Payton planned to call Bryant before Thursday's scheduled pre-trial hearing -- "We're just going to wish him luck," GP said -- and after the hearing. Malone, who lives in the same Newport Beach community as Bryant, is thinking about going to Bryant's house Friday to check on him.
"If there's one person in here not (thinking about Kobe on Thursday), it'd be disappointing," Malone said.
Said Payton: "We know Kobe is going to be back with us. We're just going to let him handle his business right now. We've got to keep this ship going until he can jump back on, and once he jumps back on, we know it's going to be a smoother ride with him."
Of course, that will be easier to project after a trial date is established, with the Lakers obviously rooting for a July trial date that falls between the end of the NBA season and next summer's Olympics.
Question 2: How did Shaq look?
His game was rusty, but whose isn't at this early stage? In purely physical terms, Shaquille O'Neal looks splendid. As trim as he has looked in the new millennium.
His face has thinned. His midsection has slimmed. After missing two of the first three veterans' practices with a bruised heel, O'Neal returned to full-speed practices and had no trouble keeping up with the Lakers' new faster pace.
If there's a question mark, it's assessing just how much O'Neal is bothered by the Lakers' open reluctance to discuss a contract extension at this time. Even though this is the first season of O'Neal's last extension -- a three-year deal worth almost $90 million -- he is eligible to sign another extension later this month and wants a maximum extension.
L.A.'s reluctance is easily explained. O'Neal is already signed through the 2005-06 season, during which he'll turn 34. It figures that the Lakers, while acknowledging that O'Neal worked hard in the summer to lose weight as he promised, will want to see how he holds up this season before discussing an extension seriously. That's especially so, given O'Neal's multiple toe surgeries and occasional knee trouble.
The Lakers also have to factor in how another $100 million guarantee to O'Neal would be received by Payton and Malone, whose well-chronicled pay cuts to come to Hollywood have left them earning a combined $6.4 million this season. What happens with Bryant's legal status also figures in, since Bryant becomes a free agent this summer, and thus eligible for his own big bucks if he can preserve his innocence in the Colorado court system.
For now, at least, Jackson doesn't see O'Neal's woofing as a major issue. During Tuesday's game, O'Neal shot a nasty glance at Lakers owner Jerry Buss after a flurry of jumpers ... and later bellowed "Now you gonna pay me?" as he walked to the L.A. bench. Then Wednesday, as Jackson readied for his pregame press briefing, O'Neal walked down a hallway rubbing his fingers together and shouting, "Show me the money."
"He's doing that for you guys," said Jackson, who knows that a peeved Shaq isn't the worst kind of Shaq to have around.
In interviews, O'Neal continues to say that "I'll never complain about what I'm getting or what I'm not getting." So it's still not totally clear just how much the situation bothers him. But another comment he made this week suggests that O'Neal knows it would be bad form to keep lobbying loudly for another extension.
Asked if he could have stomached pay cuts like Payton and Malone did to play for a championship, O'Neal said: "Could I do it? No. Probably not. My ego's too big for that."
Question 3: How did Payton and Malone take to the triangle offense?
Payton grasped it faster, but none of the Lakers looked very good Wednesday night in a 99-83 loss to Golden State. Although L.A. outscored the Warriors by four points with O'Neal, Payton and Malone on the floor, Jackson complained afterward that the Lakers suffered numerous offensive lapses that led to a rash of one-on-one play. That never works in the triangle.
Malone's positioning in the triangle has been a bit spotty so far -- he was inititally setting up farther away from the basket than the Lakers want -- but he insists that he'll have his instincts honed by the time the season starts on Oct. 28. It should also be noted that, even as he's learning his way, Malone is already making O'Neal's life easier. The Warriors were the first team to find out that you can no longer leave the Lakers' power forward to double-team O'Neal with another big man. Malone, still plenty dangerous at 40, is going to occupy one of the two biggest defenders on the floor.
Payton, meanwhile, isn't giving himself nearly as much time. He intends to watch game film after every exhibition to meet his ambitious goal.
"In a week, I'm gonna have it down pat," Payton said. "I'm a point guard. I need to learn it quick."
Legend, mind you, has it that it takes at least a year to fully learn Jackson's system. It's probably more accurate to say that it usually takes at least a year for new players to gain Jackson's full trust. But these guys aren't role players, and the heavy court time they'll receive should speed the learning process.
Truth is, Jackson is much more concerned about the Lakers coming together defensively and re-establishing their ability to clamp teams down when it matters. Which probably explains why even he couldn't resist making his own joke about trying to fit four star players into a system known for its three-sidedness.
"They're going to feel their way," Jackson said. "I think we're going to see, a lot of times, a rectangle instead of a triangle."
Question 4: How are all these big names getting along?
The group started bonding on a raucous plane ride from L.A. to Oahu and seems rather giddy. Especially Malone, who poked fun at himself for putting on a Lakers T-shirt after Wednesday's game to wear with his jeans.
"This color's starting to look good on me," Malone said.
The big issue, obviously, will be working Bryant back in after his Colorado trip and dealing with potential long-term absences during the season. Among the rest of them, though, there are promising signs.
Horace Grant should make a seamless return to the Lakers and late signee Bryon Russell, in Jackson's words, "definitely fits in with the crew." Derek Fisher has reconciled the loss of his starting job to Payton in the name of regaining the championship, and the injured Rick Fox would accept any role in return for a speedy recovery from foot surgery.
As for Shaq and Gary and Karl, they were close pals coming in and only figure to get closer.
"We're closer than everybody thinks we are," O'Neal said. Regarding concerns about ball-sharing, O'Neal added: "The way you split the shots up is you don't worry about it. We're just going to move the ball. We all have permission to shoot. Whoever's hot, or whoever gets hot first, is going to take all the shots."
Back to Kobe, Fisher said: "It's definitely going to be something we're going to have to deal with throughout the year in terms of finding ways to stay focused and keep our energy up -- if Kobe's here or not here. But I think the toughest part is going to be to stay focused. And I think early on in this process we're going to have to try to do that, and basically only concern ourselves with when he is here, helping him become even more acclimated to the guys he's already close to. And then when he's not here, those things aren't in our control."
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