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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Sea What I Mean?

To celebrate his 85th birthday, Tex Winter gathered up a group of relatives and took to the high seas recently for a cruise of the Western Caribbean.
Throughout the trip, he worked to keep up with his beloved Lakers through their seven-game losing streak.
Never mind that he was more than 1,000 miles away, Winter could feel just what they were going through. Buffeted by bad weather and stormy waters, his cruise ship couldn’t even dock at some of the ports. The Grand Caymans? Forget it. The weather was simply dreary.
Fortunately, the cruise featured one great meal after another, key for Winter, long known as a chow hound.
“Eat and poop. Poop and eat,” Winter confided. “That’s about all we did.”
The same was true for the Lakers, whose only respite from the losing was perhaps the sumptuous fare on their charter flights and in their first class hotels.
In their case, the routine became: “Eat and play like poop. Play like poop and eat.”
Actually, the preceding punch line is a bit unfair. Considering their injuries and the difficulty of the recent schedule, Winter said it would be hard to say the Lakers underperformed during the stretch, even though it resulted in seven straight losses, the longest such streak of Phil Jackson’s celebrated coaching career.
As he watched events unfold from afar, Winter had two main concerns:
1) He wondered about Jackson’s health as his team plummeted. Ultimately, though, Winter figured the losing streak was good for Jackson. Anything that humbles the coach seems to benefit him. “He handles adversity pretty well,” Winter said proudly.
2) The other concern was Kobe Bryant’s frustration level. “He appeared to be very out of sorts,” Winter said. That’s why his scoring outbursts in recent games have been important, Winter added. Like Jackson, the losing streak may have helped Bryant because it helped him see just how important Lamar Odom and Luke Walton were to him and the team.
The absence of Odom and Walton (and center Kwame Brown) have also made things hard on the other starters, especially point guard Smush Parker. Fans grew shrill in their criticism of Parker during the losing streak, but he did something important. He remained healthy and was able to hang tough through extremely challenging times. Lesser men would have easily disappeared. Not Smush. He’s the kind of guy who hangs around and keeps playing through the low points.
Sometimes that’s how you have to evaluate a player.
On the other hand, Winter’s evaluation of Andrew Bynum remains less than glowing. “Bynum hasn’t made a whole lot of progress,” Winter said, adding that the center is playing about the same way now as he was earlier in the season.
Bynum remains a young player (thus deserving of some benefit of doubt), but Winter clearly had expectations that he would develop more this year.
Jackson has begun to express a similar frustration and openly chastised Bynum for poor play toward the end of the Minnesota game. “Phil is Phil,” Winter observed. “He knows when to turn it on and turn it off. He’s been firm at times. He was very stern with Bynum at the end of the Minnesota game. I don’t know what the kid is thinking.”
Bynum responded by returning Jackson’s anger.
The Lakers may be showing some signs of selfishness, Winter said. The NBA may not be the rah-rah environment of college ball, “but you still have to have character,” he added.
In his years of working with Jackson, Winter has often been the voice encouraging him to abandon his laid-back approach and take action. He’s been pleased by what he’s seen from Jackson recently.
“I don’t think Phil can sit back and let things take their course,” he said. “He’s got to step up and show leadership. That’s what he gets paid that fabulous salary for, to face pressure.”
Winter also heartily approves of Jackson’s recent decision to turn Bryant loose as a scoring machine.
“We’re in a situation where we’ve got to rely on Kobe,” Winter said, adding that he hopes Bryant can produce a run of big games as he has done on occasion in years past.
Those Bryant scoring binges can lift the team out of the doldrums and actually boost its confidence.
Winter also answered criticism of the triangle offense, another target of frustrated fans who point out the Lakers have no running game and are mired in the triangle’s half-court attack.
Winter’s response is that the triangle has always been structured to feature the running game. With Shaquille O’Neal as the Lakers’ center, Jackson refused to allow even a hint of a run.
The Lakers opened this season determined to become a running team by relying on the ability of Lamar Odom and Luke Walton to rebound and push the ball.
“When Luke and Odom were healthy, they were getting the rebound and powering out on the break,” he said. “To run, you’ve got to rebound the ball and get it out. That in turn makes guys want to get out and fill that lane and get a basket out of the break. When that was happening early in the season, we were a pretty good running team.”
With Walton and Odom out, that running game ground to a halt. Now that they’re back from injury, it still isn’t running because “Odom and Walton still aren’t in basketball shape. They’ve been hurt so much.”
As for fan complaints that the offense is too predictable, Winter said injuries again are a factor there. With Walton and Odom out, execution of the triangle is limited, thus more predictable.
“The offense is not predictable,” he said. “You get more possibilities out of it than you would any other offense.”
Injuries are a fact of life in the NBA, Winter said, yet few teams have had injuries to as many key players as have the Lakers.
While Walton and Odom try to round their way back into shape, the team has finally turned to Bryant. Here’s hoping he has the sea legs to see the task through.

Roland Lazenby, the author of The Show, an oral history of the Lakers, also wrote Mindgames, a biography of Phil Jackson which has been released recently in a special revised paperback edition by the University of Nebraska’s Bison Books.


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