Lakers' Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher debate parallels between championship teams
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson broke out in laughter. He was asked whether it's atypical for a team defending a championship to be going through a lull like the one the Lakers have gone through in the last month.
Though the Lakers (54-21) enter Friday's game against Utah with a 4-1/2-game lead over the Jazz (50-26) and Dallas Mavericks (50-26), things are far from perfect in Lakerdom. They don't really have a shot to surpass Cleveland (59-16) for the league's best record, they came off a 2-3 trip and enter the remaining seven games without a consistent identity.
After his laughter subsided, Jackson brought up the Lakers' 2000-2001 championship team that featured lots of Shaq-Kobe dissension. As The Times' Mark Heisler wrote, that season was "otherwise known as The Title Defense from Hell." But that team managed to close out the regular season with eight consecutive regular season wins and then go on a 15-1 tear in the postseason. "This is better than last year because everybody wrote us off," Rick Fox then told The Times' Bill Plaschke. "Of course, they had reason to write us off."
The Lakers don't have that kind of drama going on this season, but there has been visible anger as of late. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant was visibly frustrated during the team's 2-3 trip, ranging from his angry scowl, punching a chair and chewing out his teammates in the locker room. There's also Sasha Vujacic's spat with assistant coach Brian Shaw, which will essentially cost him in the rotation. But as I noted after Thursday's practice, the Lakers hope cooler heads will prevail in the end. That's why Jackson, forward Pau Gasol and guard Derek Fisher struck the balance between acknowledging the team's frustration without letting it boil over.
Jackson's reference to the 2001 championship team prompted a few questions to Fisher on whether the current team's poor performances are typical of the struggles other Lakers teams went through when defending their championships. Fisher, who's been on all four of the Lakers' championship seasons this last decade (1999-2000, 2000-2001, 2001-2002 and 2008-2009), cited numerous factors that distinguish those seasons, including the makeup of the team as well as the various off-season movements among the league. This season alone, the Dallas Mavericks acquired Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood from Washington; Cleveland acquired Shaquille O'Neal from Phoenix in the offseason and Antawn Jamison from Washington before the deadline; the Magic acquired Vince Carter from Toronto in exchange for Hedo Turkoglu ... and the list goes on.
Given those variables, however, Fisher mentioned the one thing that never changes. "It's not easy, no matter how you slice it," Fisher said. "Which team it is, which year it was, it's just not an easy thing to do. That's why you remember those teams though, because they did figure out a way to do it. We want to still be one of those teams." We'll soon find out.