Magic Johnson, Jeff Van Gundy unsure Lakers are finalists

Magic Johnson says it will take a few months for the reformulated Lakers to begin hitting on all cylinders, probably after the All-Star break.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

The folks at TNT (Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal) recently voiced skepticism about the Lakers’ offense this coming season. On Wednesday, Magic Johnson and Jeff Van Gundy, of ESPN/ABC, were slightly more open-minded about the Princeton offense hybrid that Coach Mike Brown is working to install.

“The Princeton offense should be fine, and if it’s not, trust me, Kobe Bryant will say, ‘Hey, let’s go back to the triangle,’ if it’s not working,” said Johnson. “Mike is smart enough to know and then Kobe is smart enough to know. They’ll make it work or they can take some of it and still do some of the triangle at the same time.”

Brown wants his team to run a motion offense that involves every player, making it harder for opponents to scout his team. The concern may not be a November game against the Detroit Pistons but a seven-game series in April, May and June.

Van Gundy believes the Lakers are among the best in the league, but does he favor them to win the title?


“I think certainly the Lakers are one of three or four teams that could come out of the West,” said Van Gundy. “Like Magic, I think Oklahoma City, I would favor them. I favor them to actually win it all. I think their speed, quickness and depth advantages over L.A. could be the turning point in a possible series. L.A. does have a lot of work to do. They do have an exceptional level of talent.”

Johnson doesn’t expect to see the best of the Lakers for a few months. With newcomers Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks, the Lakers will need half the season to mesh.

“It’s not going to be like they’re going to come out like gangbusters,” said Johnson. “I think they’ll be hitting for me on all cylinders probably after the All-Star break and really have an understanding of each other and just what they can do and what they can’t do.”

Even if the Lakers embrace their new offensive system, Johnson envisions end-game situations coming down to the team’s star power.

“Once it gets down to the last 10 seconds or so, the Princeton offense will probably be either having it in Kobe’s hands some kind of way or having it in Steve’s hands where it’s probably going to end up being a pick and roll,” said Johnson.

Van Gundy was like-minded.

“I agree with Magic,” said Van Gundy. “I think they’re going to combine the Princeton offense with the Santa Clara offense, with the Lower Merion offense. Mike Brown is a very, very good basketball coach. He’s not going to run the Princeton offense at the expense of not putting Steve Nash in as many pick and rolls as he can, because when you combine Nash’s incredible shooting with being just an incredibly unselfish and accurate passer, you would be doing your team a disservice.”

Nash went to school at Santa Clara and Bryant came into the NBA straight from Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pa.

Both Johnson and Van Gundy believe the Lakers are talented but their main concerns surrounded the team’s depth, athleticism and ability to defend.

“I think what we’re going to have to see if they can stop people in the crucial times in the last four or five minutes,” said Johnson. “Can they come up with big and crucial stops to win the game?”

Johnson and Van Gundy said the Lakers will be contenders, but neither was willing to hand Bryant his sixth ring.

“I think their starting unit is the most talented starting unit in the NBA,” said Van Gundy. “But do they have the speed, quickness and the bench to get over that Oklahoma City hurdle? I’m not sure.”

The Lakers’ first regular]season appearance on ESPN will be on November 2 as they host the Clippers.


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