Well, now what? The Lakers have lost with Shaquille O'Neal on the shelf and with him in the lineup. They've lost when Kobe Bryant has been a selfless passer and when he's been a soulless gunner. They've lost when Phil Jackson has talked X's and O's and when he's said stuff like, "The conjunctions of certain planets have kept us apart." They've lost when Shaq and Kobe have lashed out at their teammates and when they've shown them some love.
It's all so bewildering. In training camp the Lakers set their cold gunslingers' eyes on a fourth straight championship, a goal that seemed realistic even with O'Neal starting the season on the injured list after toe surgery. Yet after a 109-107 overtime win at Toronto on Sunday—one that seemed more like a loss considering the lowly Raptors were without Vince Carter and Antonio Davis—Los Angeles was in interplanetary disarray, with an 11-18 record (including 8-9 with Shaq in the lineup) that ranked 11th in the Western Conference.
The Lakers can't even agree among themselves on the reasons for the slide. Forward Rick Fox thinks they sometimes stray too far from their triangle offense, while others think it's merely all the missed shots that are undoing an offense that is otherwise running competently. Forward Robert Horry believes that his team is complacent, while backup guard Brian Shaw says, "I don't think that's the case."
Everything is as clear as a smoggy L.A. morning. It might seem, for example, that Bryant, who had back-to-back games of 44 and 31 points last week, is playing as well as ever. But he's not. While his 26.7-point scoring average at week's end is in line with his last two seasons, his shooting percentage (44.3%) is down markedly, even with Shaq back and attracting defenders. The proliferation of collapsing zone defenses, most often pointed to as hindering Shaq, is also hurting Kobe, who sometimes looks as if he's "it" in an enervating game of tag, so relentlessly do teams gang-pursue him.
And since Kobe is the facilitator of the offense, that congestion has hindered the execution of the triangle. Role players Fox, Horry, Derek Fisher, Samaki Walker and Devean George—who were shooting a collective 39.3% at week's end—are finding their customary looks unavailable as Bryant attracts defenders like aphids to a tomato plant. Because the passing lanes are clogged, says Shaw, "We don't get those jumpers from the corner of the free throw line and the baseline."
Still, the prevailing theory—that the Lakers will be the class of the league when O'Neal is 100%—might turn out to be correct. In describing how sick he is of losing, Shaq said last week that he is "pissed off to the highest point of pissivity." But given the hole the Lakers have dug for themselves, if s going to take more than I've-had-it declarations from the game's most dominant player. Teams have developed a taste for beating L.A. and, it seems, a defensive plan for doing it.