Usually, Phil Jackson has a pretty good idea by Thanksgiving how NBA teams are going to shape up for the season.
This time, Jackson is asking for more time – uncertain of his conclusions. Or, perhaps, the Lakers coach is putting off the inevitable, a feeling that the Clippers have passed up the Lakers as the better team in Los Angeles.
And isn’t that something? The woeful Clippers, so inferior to the Lakers throughout the years, had a better record and went further in the playoffs last season and appear to have widened the gap now.
The Clippers have more good players and have begun to spend heavily to keep them in a drastic departure from their previous stance. By contrast, the Lakers are bogged down by the NBA’s salary cap and have made only minor roster improvements the last couple of years.
When the Lakers traded Shaquille O’Neal, they attempted to free up salary cap room in order to land a big prize. As Amare Stoudamire, LaBron James and Yao Ming became available, they intended to grab one, counting on their glamorous history to help attract such a superstar. Instead, all those players signed again with their original teams.
The Lakers’ only free agent signee this season was forward Vladimir Radmanovich, who suffered a hand injury in training camp and has been beaten out for a starting position by Luke Walton.
But the Lakers aren’t without hope. Their first round draft choice a year ago, 7-foot-1 high school center Andrew Bynum, has progressed swiftly and is making a major contribution at the age of 19. Forward Ronny Turiaf, who was chosen in the second round of the same draft, has had some encouraging moments too.
With Kobe Bryant coming back from arthroscopic knee surgery, the Lakers are trying to make the playoffs for the second straight year after missing once.
However, that’s their goal now rather than having the goal of winning a championship, which it was when O’Neal teamed with Bryant.
The Lakers are attempting to benefit from an extremely favorable early season schedule that includes 15 of the first 20 games at home. But they’ve already lost at Seattle and Portland. They can’t afford many losses of that nature with their eastern travel yet to begin.
A major weakness is the absence of anyone who can control opposing speedy point guards. Bryant is too busy offensively to take on that task. Smush Parker isn’t the answer, and rookie Jordan Farmar is far more advanced offensively than defensively.
Keep in mind that when Magic Johnson played, he had Byron Scott as a backcourt partner. Scott did that job night after night. Keeping opponents such as Golden State’s Baron Davis and New Orleans’ Chris Paul from penetrating their defense could be the key to whether the Lakers make the playoffs.
The Clippers have all-star forward Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Sam Cassell and Cutino Mobley, plus a prized young guard in Shawn Livingston. They also have signed center Chris Kaman to a contract extension.
What has changed from the days when owner Donald Sterling regularly let players leave as their contracts expired? For one thing, a unified stand by General Manager Elgin Baylor and Coach Mike Dunleavy, who present their cases jointly. It’s hard for Sterling to disappoint both of them.
At this early point of the season, it looks like six Western Conference teams will make strong bids for a playoff berth – San Antonio, Dallas, Phoenix, the Clippers, Houston and the winner of a division that includes Utah and Denver.
If those six get in, only seventh or eighth would be available to the Lakers. There are numerous contenders for those seventh and eighth slots, including Denver, New Orleans, Golden State, Minnesota and Sacramento.
This is the second year of Jackson’s three-year, $30 million contract. He had hip replacement surgery during training camp, and it remains to be seen how many more years he will coach.
As for the fans, they’re holding up well. Despite the Lakers’ reduced goals there was a 97 percent renewal figure among season ticket holders, and fans are dealing with a horrendous parking situation around Staples Center caused by the elimination of two main lots due to construction of hotels, businesses and condominiums.
While building for the future, the Lakers also have an eye on the past. Owner Jerry Buss said he’s interested in having the Lakers play an exhibition game in the Forum, their longtime home until Staples Center was built.
The problem is the Forum’s scoreboard is no longer there. The giant scoreboard, complete with video, has been sold.