It has been an afterthought for most of the season's early going. Sometimes Gary Payton has pushed the ball upcourt, forcing a transition game that hasn't been seen around here for a decade. Or Kobe Bryant has taken over, creating shots for himself, by himself. More often, the Lakers have been content to drop the ball into O'Neal, who provides a mismatch against any lone defender and is one of the highest percentage shooters in the league.
They lost that option when O'Neal limped to the sideline because of a strained calf muscle in the third quarter of the Lakers' victory over the Chicago Bulls on Friday night. Their solution in that game was to hand the ball to Bryant and let him take 11 shots to score 17 points in the fourth quarter. But Bryant can't sustain that for an entire game, and Coach Phil Jackson thought the tilted offense reached the point of "a little overkill."
Bryant is the team's best at creating his own shot. O'Neal gets the best shots -- for himself or his teammates. Without him, "The execution will have to come forth if we're going to play well," Jackson said. "Shaq can create shots just by the virtue of the fact that two men are designated to guard him most of the time. That can create shots for other people."
In other words, there's no more cheating.
Said Payton: "Now we have to run our offense and we have to be smart. We can't make turnovers, we've got to play good defense. We're going to have to just execute now."
Karl Malone estimates he is 40%-50% of the way to understanding the offense. Maybe 60%.
"But it's getting better," Malone said Saturday. "Eighteen years in a system and change the whole thing I give [it] 50%, 60%, maybe somewhere in there....
"I'm getting there. I'm not getting there at the pace I want. I had all these tapes, I watch these tapes, but it's not the same when you get out there. I'm willing to learn.
"It's just really getting to know your teammates."
O'Neal performing something out of "Riverdance." Actually, O'Neal was showing off his soccer skills with an imaginary ball in an attempt to impress Freddy Adu, the 14-year-old soccer star who met O'Neal before Friday's game.
Adu plays a little basketball himself. But he has been focusing on soccer ... and he hasn't been growing. Adu is only 5 feet 7. His 12-year-old brother, Fro, is already 5-10.
"You see those guys, they've done a lot," said Adu, who signed a contract with Major League Soccer and will play with D.C. United. "What else can you say? You just watch them and learn from them."
As always, Payton talking. What's most amazing is how he can comment on everything going on in the room without missing a beat. Saturday, for example, he switched from mock sympathy for the giant cast on assistant coach Kurt Rambis' surgically repaired foot ("Do you want me to sign your boot?" Payton asked) to needling Malone about a missed jump shot.
Rambis likens Payton to a shark.
"I told him, 'You know how a shark has to swim continuously to stay alive? If you stopped talking, you'd die,' " Rambis said.
Faces in the Crowd
Brittany Murphy, Soleil Moon Frye, Nov. 16 vs. Miami.
Thomas Hearns, Nov. 18 at Detroit.
Derek Jeter, P. Diddy, Jay-Z, Ashanti, Whoopi Goldberg, Kristen Davis, Nov. 19 at New York.
In a Word
"Grumpy." The name and likeness of the dwarf (from Snow White's crew) on Karl Malone's T-shirt Friday.