Lakers Might Love New Rules

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For those who believe the NBA's decision to allow zone defenses next season will help neutralize Shaquille O'Neal and make the Lakers more beatable . . . think again.

As Philadelphia Coach Larry Brown pointed out during this year's NBA Finals, the league's best players will adapt and still dominate. Which means, get ready for more O'Neal and his sidekick Kobe Bryant.

When the league announced rule changes for next season earlier this year, many were caught by surprise because the competition committee had been against complete legalization of zone defenses. But Commissioner David Stern put together a special committee to come up with ideas to help speed up play and produce more scoring, and this is what they came up with.

Not only will zones be allowed, but teams will also have only eight seconds to get the ball past midcourt instead of 10 to go along with a couple of other minor changes.

The new rules are expected to help eliminate the league's boring trend of having a two-man set on the strong side of a half-court offense, with three players on the weak side who are not involved at all in the offense.

But the Lakers don't use that type of offense anyway.

The triangle offense is already a zone-buster. With the Lakers, movement has always been a key and that's why teams that tried to double-team O'Neal down low still had trouble.

O'Neal will still be the same dominating 300-plus pound big man with exceptional mobility and passing skills. So expect more 30-point and 20-rebound games from him. But even if O'Neal ends up having games with subpar numbers, that will mean other Lakers will have their way.

Especially Bryant. With his outstanding athleticism and ability to shoot at will, Bryant is a headache waiting to happen when opponents try to use a fancy zone against the Lakers.

It's a good thought to have the ability to send players anywhere they want on defense, but that means they will have to think on their feet, and that's already a major problem coaches have with today's young players.

It's not like the old days, when most players who reached the pros had a heavy background of basic and creative zone defenses. Instead, many of the new players entering the league barely know how to play straight-up man-to-man defense, let alone work with a teammate.

Bryant will eat up noncohesive defenses. Because he has the ability to knock down shots over basic zone defenses and the smoothness to drive around stationary players, the Lakers may end up with more offensive options than ever before.

Fatigue will be another factor. Remember Rick Pitino and his zone-happy trapping Boston Celtics? On paper, Pitino seemed to have a good idea: Pressure the opponent and trap all over the court. But the NBA season is too long for players to keep up that effort from November to June.

Philadelphia was effective using a zone-type defense throughout the playoffs, but by the time the 76ers reached the Lakers, they didn't have anything left in their gas tank.

Not only did Philadelphia have to deal with injured and tired players, but once an opponent gets a chance to see what you're doing, any defense can be beat with good players.

And, that brings us back to the first point, which is that O'Neal and Bryant are simply too good.

If anything, the Lakers may become the most feared defensive team in the league. Opponents already complain about having to face O'Neal, who loves to clog up the middle, and now it will be legal for him to never leave the lane.

With the NBA already hurting because of a lack of true centers, O'Neal will still have an edge. With him inside, the Lakers will be able to freelance more and take the ball out of the hands of a player such as the 76ers' Allen Iverson or soon-to-be free agent Chris Webber.

Laker Coach Phil Jackson is known to love having players with long arms and reach on his roster, and now it seems like the league is rewarding him even more.

By using more creative defenses, the Lakers probably will be able to get out and run even more, with O'Neal grabbing a ton of rebounds. With Derek Fisher and Tyronn Lue ready to accept more responsibility, their quickness will help the Lakers become an up-tempo team whenever they want.

And let's not forget about veterans Rick Fox and Robert Horry (if he returns as expected). They are versatile, defense-minded forwards who can run the court. They may not be able to defend smaller and quick players every night, but they should be effective playing in a zone and shooting from long distance.

So whether the league intended to, the Lakers may end up being even better with the new rules.

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