Sports Nut

What’s Wrong With the Lakers?

Shaq and Kobe need a power forward. Send help soon.

Shaquille O'Neal
Shaquille and the wolves

If you took any team in the NBA, subtracted its top two players, and replaced them with Shaq and Kobe, you’d have an instant championship contender—the Heat, the Grizzlies, the Knicks, doesn’t matter. Shaq and Kobe could lift the Yakima Sun Kings into contention. Which makes you wonder, what the hell is going on with the Los Angeles Lakers this season? After last night’s drubbing at the hands of the Minnesota, they’ve managed only 10 victories in 26 games. Shaq’s toe injury is, of course, a significant factor, but why were his teammates so unable to raise the level of their play without him, and why has the team been a good deal less than dominant with him?

The answer is that beyond their two superstars, the Lakers are a lackluster team, overmatched at every other position and overstocked with head cases, complacent vets, and kids who’ll never get enough PT to realize their potential, if in fact they have any. Last year, Los Angeles had to go to overtime in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals to beat the Sacramento Kings—that’s a pretty slim margin of error. This season, Sacramento and the Dallas Mavericks have improved; the Lakers have not.

That means L.A. must deal for some help right now. The Lakers don’t need anybody flashy or exotic—just a power forward who hustles and eats up space in the paint.

As much as anything, the Lakers need this player to restore a sense of equilibrium to their roster. Building a team around two superstars is not easy to do—you’ve got to find guys with enough talent to contribute and enough humility to know their place. It helps to keep shuffling the roster a bit every year, like the Bulls did during their championship runs, because that means you’ve always got players for whom winning is a novelty. It also keeps your stars from getting exasperated when the role players can’t match their intensity.

For several years now, though, the Lakers’ have kept their supporting cast largely constant. Derek Fisher is the prototype. He is not anybody’s dreamboat of a point guard—he’s small, inconsistent with the shot, and never one to rack up a ton of assists—but he plays hard and seems not to have become overly enamored with his own abilities.

Small forward Rick Fox, on the other hand, becomes more smitten with himself every day, even as his shooting percentage has taken a NASDAQ-like plunge. Robert Horry still has the stroke of a fine shooter and the knack for hitting huge shots in nationally televised games, but his numbers tell a sobering tale. Samaki Walker has established himself as Kobe’s least-favorite person for not playing through injuries and for God knows what else behind the scenes. (Click here to read about their last confrontation.) Backup guard Brian Shaw, plucked from waivers, plays just barely well enough not to wind up back there. Devean George is a classic tweener, and reserve center Stanislav Medvedenko is somehow managing to shoot less than 40 percent from the field, hard to do when you’re 6-feet-10 and they only let you take layups. Shaq and Kobe, in fact, are the only Lakers shooting better than 45 percent.

Despite their lousy field-goal percentage, though, the Lakers shouldn’t go shopping for a shooter. (They’ve tried that many times over the last couple years—Glen Rice, J.R. Rider, Mitch Richmond—and it doesn’t work because you can’t take shots away from Kobe and Shaq.) What’s more important is that the Lakers get a tough, aggressive power forward who will change the vibe on the team. This player also has to come from the discount aisle, since the Lakers don’t have much to offer.

The top candidate is Bo Outlaw of the Phoenix Suns, a 6-foot-8 loose-ball fiend who also blocks shots and does highly meaningful work on the boards. Yes, he has an ugly jumper, but at least he knows better than to let us see it often. He is a terrific role player, Dennis Rodman without the cross-dressing pretensions, and potentially available because of the emergence of rookie Amare Stoudemire. Another good fit, and probably easier to shake loose, is the Knicks’ Othella Harrington, a hard-working banger who occasionally shows nifty moves around the basket. He’s probably no better or worse than Samaki Walker, but since Kobe has yet to throw a punch at him, he represents an upgrade.

It’s hard to see exactly how a deal with either Phoenix or New York could be swung. The Suns, in particular, are hardly looking for ways to help the Lakers. But if Los Angeles gets a third team involved, it ought to be possible. Who’s the best trade bait? Horry might generate some interest. So might George, if properly disguised as a comer who needs only generous PT to shine.

Trading a core guy would be a more substantial risk than the Lakers have taken since they began their championship run. But it would be no greater than the Bulls going out and getting Dennis Rodman in 1995, the move that sealed their dynasty. The Lakers are a strange lot—in years past, they have shown a propensity for taking it easy when they could and then turning it on when they had to. Their spectacular 44-15 fourth-quarter smoking of the Mavericks the week before last showed they can still flip that switch. But Kobe and Shaq have expressed in no uncertain terms their displeasure with their teammates, and whether they’re right or wrong doesn’t matter. They are the Lakers. The team has a choice: Deal for a power forward who will help them win a fourth straight title, or wait until they lose in the playoffs and make the deal next summer.