Lakers not so great anymore

MIKE KOREEN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:10 AM ET

During NBA all-star weekend in Denver, Kobe Bryant was asked a general question about the past 12 months of his life. At one point, the Los Angeles Lakers star described it as a "blessed year."

If that's the case, we wonder what a bad year would look like.

This blessed year, which continues today when the Lakers face the Raptors at the Air Canada Centre, has included:

- A sexual assault case against Bryant that eventually was dropped, though a civil case remains.

- The resignation of new, highly paid Lakers coach Rudy Tomjanovich because of stress issues.

- Heavy criticism of Bryant from ex-coach Phil Jackson.

And if that's not enough, don't forget the defending Western Conference champions -- minus Shaquille O'Neal and Jackson, but with Bryant signed to a new seven-year, $136.4-million US contract -- are hanging on to the West's final playoff spot for dear life at 28-25. The latest depressing loss came Friday in L.A., a 111-90 defeat against the same Detroit Pistons team that beat the Lakers in a five-game NBA final last season. Just like that, the Lakers' modest season-high three-game winning streak was toast.

"They didn't even have to turn it up," said Bryant, whose team didn't lead at any point in two games against the Pistons this season. "They were just very basic."

Coach Frank Hamblen, who stepped in when Tomjanovich resigned earlier this month, is trying to restore a triangle offence that was favoured during the team's glory days. But with Shaq leading the Miami Heat to the best record in the East and the Lakers in danger of missing the playoffs, Tinseltown fans aren't exactly thrilled.

"You can go ahead and plan your vacation after the regular season if you are associated with the Lakers," ex-NBA all-star Charles Barkley said before the all-star break.

San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan didn't go quite as far, but he acknowledged the Lakers have issues.

WHOLE NEW WORLD

"It's a whole new world for those guys," he told the Orange Country Register recently. They start to get put back together with Kobe returning and a new coach, and all of a sudden they implode again. I'm not saying they're destroyed in any way, but when your nucleus, your coaching staff, is kind of taken out from underneath you, it's got to do something to your team. I don't envy them, let's put it that way."

O'Neal, whose Heat beat the Lakers in the highest-rated regular season television game in six years in December, seems to be enjoying the Lakers' fall.

"There's an old term that says a record speaks for itself," Shaq said. "So you tell me how different they are. I don't really have to say how different they are."

As for Bryant, he insists life is decent. At least for now.

"It's completely normal," Bryant said in Denver. "It's just real low key. I just go out and play basketball, turn on the TV and see people talk about how we're not going to make the playoffs."

If the Lakers don't improve soon, those people will be right.


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