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Multiple factors led to Lakers’ demise

The list includes arrogance, fouls, Malone injury

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In the wake of the Los Angeles Lakers' unexpected demise, it's going to be tempting to try to pin the downfall of the dynasty on one factor.

Karl Malone's injury figures to get a lot of attention, and the incredible disparity in fouls and free throws also will prove attractive, especially to conspiracy theorists. But the undoing of the Lakers was the result of not one but several factors, and even though fans in L.A. won't want to hear this, some of them even involve the Detroit Pistons.

Here's what brought the Lakers down, in no particular order:

Arrogance. It was obvious in Game 1 that the Lakers felt, like just about everyone else, that once the West was won so was the title. They did not come into that game taking the Pistons seriously. Even after they lost that game and lucked into a Game 2 victory, the Lakers had the attitude of guys who could kick their game into gear whenever they wanted. It wasn't until they lost Game 3 that they seemed to realize they were in trouble.

Underrated Pistons. Hey, EVERYBODY was guilty of this. The prevailing belief this season, as in the past several seasons, is that the real NBA title is decided in the Western Conference championship series, or maybe even one series sooner, as in this year's Lakers-Spurs matchup. Sure, everyone knows the Pistons are one of the best teams in the East, but that's hard to take seriously when they're in a conference where the No. 4 seed is two games over .500. But, clearly, the Pistons are on a par with the West's best, no matter how pitiful their conference.

Selfishness. The Pistons are good defenders, but the only guy who can stop Shaquille O'Neal is Kobe Bryant. O'Neal knows it, as does Laker coach Phil Jackson. Only Bryant and some of his more ardent supporters refuse to acknowledge this fact. All of the Lakers would get better scoring opportunities if the ball went in to Shaq more, but what we've seen all too often is Bryant trying to carry the team alone. When Bryant drives the lane, the Pistons send three or four defenders at him, knowing that he either won't pass, or that he'll pass to someone that isn't going to beat them. And that goes a long way toward explaining why Bryant had such a poor shooting percentage for the series. As a counterpoint to this, the Pistons have epitomized unselfishness, sharing the ball, helping on defense and generally playing like a team.

Malone's injury. The veteran forward played pretty well against both the Spurs and Timberwolves, and all season long the Lakers were better when Malone was scoring a few points, getting some assists, grabbing rebounds. Some might dispute this factor, because the Lakers were already down a game when he got hurt, but when you look at who his replacements have been those arguments fall apart in a hurry. A healthy Malone makes a difference, especially against the Pistons' forward tandem of Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace. They'd still focus primarily on O'Neal, but they wouldn't be able to completely ignore Malone, as they've done the last couple of games.

Coaching. Face it, Larry Brown has outcoached Jackson. The Pistons have had the better game plan and they've outworked the Lakers, and those kinds of things go back to coaching. For all Jackson's alleged "genius," what we've seen throughout this series is glimpses of a guy who appears totally befuddled, who is sitting back waiting for the superstars to bail him out. After Game 1, Jackson said his team needed to box out if it wanted to get rebounds. Well, duh. You hope he was saying that for our benefit, and that he let his team know what a good rebounding team the Pistons are BEFORE Game 1, but you have to wonder.

Fouls. The guys broadcasting this series keep telling us that the Pistons are shooting a ton more free throws because they are going to the basket while the Lakers are shooting jump shots, but that's simply not true. Look at the stats: In Game 4, the Lakers shot 49 jumpers, the Pistons 45. But L.A. got called for 15 more fouls, and the Pistons shot 41 free throws to the Lakers' 22. And that's even with the Pistons frequently fouling O'Neal on purpose. To an objective observer, what it looks like is that the respective teams are being judged according to how they played in the regular season. Brown's defensive philosophy always has been that you whack opponents every trip downcourt, figuring the officials aren't going to call something everytime. So his team is being allowed to body up and hold more. The Lakers, meanwhile, typically beat teams on talent alone, so when they try the same things, they get whistled. At least, you have to hope that explains the glaring discrepancy, because the alternative would be a sad reflection on a league that is already suspected of being the most organizationally choreographed of the major sports.

So there are six factors that have led to the rise of the Pistons and the fall of the Lakers. There are probably more, maybe some we won't know about for awhile. Either way, the result is clear: The dynasty is done.


E-mail: rich@desnews.com