Lakers are ringing in the new Young, talented group matures into title force

December 06, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

It's a query that causes Kurt Rambis to pause because, frankly, he thinks comparing the "Showtime Era" of the Los Angeles Lakers, during which he won four championship rings, to the current team, which hasn't earned him any new jewelry as an assistant coach, is unfair.

But when asked just how good the current Lakers' team can be, Rambis only pauses to lower his big duffel bag to the ground so he can better demonstrate his point.

"Some teams have the potential to play at a level here," Rambis says, holding his right hand about chest high. Then he raises that same hand about a foot above his head, and says, "We're capable of playing at a level here.

"Right now we're playing well, but we're playing at a level so far below where we're capable of playing. This team hasn't grown yet to what we were [in the '80s]. But the potential is absolutely tremendous."

And the potential is pretty scary, considering what the Lakers have done without All-Star center Shaquille O'Neal (out since Nov. 19 with an abdominal strain). With last night's 98-88 win over San Antonio, the Lakers have a 15-2 record, the third best start in franchise history and best in the league. The versatile Lakers are the top scoring team in the league (108.2 ppg) and have won by the biggest point differential (+11.5).

And the third youngest team in the league (25.8 years) has accomplished much of its early-season success without O'Neal, who has played in just eight games this year.

"The Lakers organization over the next seven, eight years is going to be in line for a championship," Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino said before his team lost to the Lakers, 118-103, on Nov. 26. "This is a powerful, powerful basketball team. They are capable of doing anything."

Added point guard Nick Van Exel: "We can't win them all, although we'd like to. I think we pretty much know our potential. If we get out there every night and play each team like it's a championship team, we can go a long way."

The Lakers felt like they were on their way a year ago when, despite O'Neal missing 31 games, they finished 56-26. A healthy O'Neal had the Lakers thinking championship.

But a loss in five games to the Utah Jazz, during which then 18-year-old Kobe Bryant was called on to take the final shots, had many questioning whether the team would forever suffer from lack of leadership.

'Wake-up' call

That maturity question led the Lakers to entertain thoughts of an Eddie Jones for Mitch Richmond deal with the Sacramento Kings last month. But the Lakers, who were undefeated at the time, stood pat and Jones has continued to play at the level that made him a first-time All-Star last year.

"Sometimes trade rumors are a wake-up call," said forward Robert Horry, who should know -- in 1994 he was traded from Houston to the Detroit Pistons, only to have that deal later voided. Horry would go on to win two titles with Houston. "But I don't know if it was a wake-up call for Eddie because he's played well since I've been here."

So far this year Van Exel and O'Neal have stepped up as vocal leaders -- although some players feel the leadership criticism from a year ago was overblown.

"People always claim and want to boast and brag on so-called leaders, but you really don't need it -- you need individual guys who take it upon themselves to do well," Horry said. "In Houston, everybody said that Dream [Hakeem Olajuwon] was the leader, but Dream never said anything. He just led by example. And this is a team that leads by example."

Van Exel, 26, has done that. A year ago it seemed his future would be elsewhere after arguing on the sideline with coach Del Harris during the Utah series, and his saying days later that he could not co-exist with the coach. This season, Van Exel has set aside those differences, and has provided guidance to younger players and set the tone with his unselfish play at the point, averaging 17.6 points and 6.3 assists.

"Nick has improved tremendously in his ability to deal with things and off the court, and in his relationship with the coach," Rambis said.

Said Van Exel: "I'm a player, he's the coach and I just want to go out and do my job. After losing that series in Utah last year, it really opened my eyes. I never want to go through anything like that again. All I'm worried about now is getting on the court, and trying to make things right this time."

Bryant bursts forth

What makes the Lakers so dangerous is that they can beat you in so many ways. On the inside, O'Neal and Elden Campbell provide a strong presence. On the outside, Van Exel, Jones, Bryant and Rick Fox keep defenses honest with their ability to hit open shots.

They are also versatile, with six players capable of playing multiple positions. The team can run and finish on the break as well as anybody in the league. And the ability that Jones, Bryant and Van Exel have of breaking down defenders off the dribble make the Lakers a highlight favorite.

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