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Matt Barnes' slapping incident with assistant coach shouldn't be a cause for concern with the Lakers

August 17, 2010 | 10:42 am


Some may see this as a warning sign of things to come. I see it as something that no one will even remember once the 2010-2011 season ends.

Lakers forward Matt Barnes demonstrated in a summer league last week how his fiery intensity sometimes channels the wrong way, in this case slapping an opposing team's assistant coach during a game in the Bay Area Pro-Am Summer Basketball League. Rasheed Malek of provided the following account to Sports by Brooks: "Barnes engaged the referee into conversation directly in front of the opposing team's Head Coach and Assistant Coach. While talking to the referee, Barnes begins to get heckled by SF City assistant head coach, Rick Lewis. Lewis was saying things like "stop your crying, you're in the NBA, stop crying" and other remarks which were an attempt to antagonize and get under Barnes' skin.

"Barnes finally stepped towards Lewis and got in his face and they exchanged pleasantries, Barnes walked away but Lewis was still chirping so Barnes came back and got in his face at which point Barnes gave Lewis a slap on the face.

Now, it was more of a "love tap" than anything malicious; he didn't wind up or put any force behind it. As soon as it happened, the referees came over, Barnes' coaching staff ran over and the situation kind of fizzled itself out."

Ever since the Lakers acquired Barnes this offseason, there's been somewhat of a split on what to make of it. Some are giddy over the fact that Barnes will no longer pretend to be throwing inbounds passes at Kobe Bryant, but instead will bring that same intensity to the opposition. Some worry that fiery play won't always be channeled the right way, such as the summer league incident with the opposing team's assistant coach.

Barnes' effort in controlling his emotions may not turn out as perfectly as hoped next season, but it's nothing the Lakers can't control. The reason: Phil Jackson coaches a team that consists of talented and veteran players. You only need to look at two case studies to understand how Jackson's veteran teams are equipped to handle players with checkered pasts.

After proving to be a distraction in San Antonio, Dennis Rodman still carried his dyed-hair antics to Chicago from 1995 to 1998. He kicked a cameraman in the groin. He head-butted a referee. And he had a high-profile romance with Madonna. While Jackson and the Bulls downplayed those incidents, Rodman felt respected and, in return, excelled in rebounding, loose balls and boosting the team's energy. The Lakers in 1999 thought they could also benefit from Rodman's presence, but that team simply didn't have the veteran leadership to handle such a strong personality as well as Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen managed.

Since that time, Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher have accumulated five championships while Jackson just collected his 11th title. The last championship was made possible because of Ron Artest's Game 7 heroics, but that process took a season for Artest to fully benefit the team. Some of Artest's antics this season are much tamer than Rodman's, but they include a Christmas night concussion, his claim to Sporting News that he drank before games when he played for Chicago (1999-2001) and his criticisms of Jackson via Twitter for questioning his shot selection. But each incident became very forgettable simply because the Lakers didn't make a big deal of it and didn't allow it to become a distraction.

Artest deserves credit for maturing and improving his public image since the "Malice at the Palace," but the Lakers deserve credit for nurturing his growth. The Lakers universally praised his work ethic and appreciated his effort in getting acclimated with the team, with Artest always complimenting his teammates, calling Jackson his best coach and constantly wanting to improve his defensive intensity and understanding of the triangle offense. Though Artest went through growing pains in becoming fully comfortable, his effort proved genuine partly because of the support system that surrounded him.

The same thing will happen with Barnes. There may be games where he draws a technical foul, becomes too chippy with an opposing team's player or allows his frustration to distract his focus. But the Lakers will quickly rein him in, both with positive reinforcement and accountability. And because of the talent and experience around him, Barnes will improve in channeling that aggression the right way.

It seems Barnes already understands that.

"Some people do too much or talk too much, and there's only so much you can take," Barnes recently told AOL Fanhouse's Sam Amick. "It's hard. It's definitely hard when the refs have it out for you, saying 'Oh, you're in the NBA, so you don't get this (call) and we're going to call this.' Then the coach is talking and completely disrespecting me. "It's frustrating, but at the same time I've got to keep my composure because I'm a professional and I get paid to do this. I lost my professionalism for a little while, but I regained my composure and we won a championship tonight."

-- Mark Medina

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Photo: Lakers forward Matt Barnes reportedly slapped an opposing team's assistant coach last week during a summer league game. Credit: Nick Ut / Associated Press.