Like Heroes of Recent Past, Lakers Coming to Terms with Tough, New Realities

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterMarch 13, 2015

New York Knicks' head coach Derek Fisher directs his team against the Los Angeles Lakers including Lakers' Ed Davis, left, during an NBA Basketball game, Thursday, March 12, 2015, in Los Angeles. The Knicks won 101-94. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — They stayed in their separate corners throughout the second half.

Kobe Bryant sat near the end of the Los Angeles Lakers bench, Derek Fisher mostly stood in front of the New York Knicks bench and Phil Jackson chilled out in fiancée and Lakers president Jeanie Buss' usual second-row seating area directly across the court from Bryant.

Connect the dots, and you'd have, yes, a triangle. It would in fact be a right triangle with a 90-degree angle at Bryant's seat—and because of how right things were with the three of them together at Staples Center in the past.

Bryant, Fisher and Jackson were at the heart of all five of the Lakers' last NBA championships, the first one won on this floor the season Staples opened in 1999-2000.

As they went through the motions Thursday night in the equivalent of an exhibition game won by the Knicks, 101-94, one point sunk in: Odds are that none of the three will be involved in the next Lakers championship, whenever that is.

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press
Video Play Button
Videos you might like

There's an outside chance Bryant extends his playing career with the Lakers until the talent goes from this nadir to crest anew—and Bryant figures to serve as an unofficial ambassador for the organization forever. But he has a post-basketball business plan to make real.

Fisher, as rookie head coach, and Jackson, as rookie team president, have linked arms to rebuild the Knicks, not the Lakers. And if seeing Fisher coaching at Staples against the Lakers for the first time Thursday night wasn't statement enough, there was more change effected inside the Lakers locker room.

Fisher's former locker, kept vacant for years as a show of respect by team captain Bryant and Lakers equipment manager Carlos Maples, had a new nameplate on it: "BROWN."

Rookie guard Jabari Brown, on a 10-day contract with the Lakers, had been given Fisher's old locker and made his NBA debut for the Lakers against Fisher's team. Because the Lakers were granted a hardship exemption from the league for all their injured players, Brown took them over the usual 15-man threshold and up to 16, meaning the usual locker assignments had to be adjusted, too.

It's just as well given the changing tide.

After the game, Jackson headed in to see the victorious Knicks. It might well have been the first time Jackson ever saw the inside of the visiting locker room at Staples Center. (The Lakers use their own locker room even when the assigned visiting team for Clippers home games.)

Jeanie Buss and Phil Jackson watched their respective struggling franchises together in L.A. Thursday night.
Jeanie Buss and Phil Jackson watched their respective struggling franchises together in L.A. Thursday night.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Jackson and Fisher are Lakers no more, bottom line.

It might not seem to be any big loss these days with the 13-51 Knicks even lower than the 17-47 Lakers in the standings, and Carmelo Anthony having a bad knee when turning 31 in a couple months.

But make no mistake, the Knicks have a leg up on the Lakers in rebuilding because Anthony chose New York over Los Angeles in free agency last summer. Having any star (well, any star who isn't about to retire) is a huge asset because he can play great, or you can always flip him for other assets. At least you have something special with which to work.

What should not be ruled out, however, is Anthony impressively bouncing back and buying in to the system basketball that Jackson and Fisher deeply believe in. Let's wait and see what a healthy Anthony does next season with a little more talent and a lot sturdier structure in place in New York.

The Lakers have the edge in young talent because of Julius Randle and more upcoming draft picks, but it's going to come down more to which free agents choose New York or Los Angeles, same as with Anthony.

"We're both going through challenging times at the moment," Fisher said.

Fisher smiled as he referenced appreciative Lakers fans applauding him Thursday night, saying, "I'm hopeful Knicks fans can see some people do like me."

First-year Lakers coach Byron Scott said Knicks fans aren't unlike Lakers fans in how they're handling these struggles: "They say they're going to be patient…but they're not."

At least Lakers fans can celebrate the recent past that Bryant, Fisher and Jackson brought them. Denzel Washington did when he sought out Jackson for a handshake during the game. And there was some scrapbook stuff Friday night.

Fisher reflected on earning Bryant's respect when they were rookie teammates in 1996 by being "somehow irrational" enough to believe he was just as good as Bryant and competing accordingly. While Jackson and Buss sat next to each other in the third quarter, DMX's "Party Up (Up in Here)"—sung by the Shaquille O'Neal-led Lakers amid the champagne celebration in Philadelphia in 2001—came on over the Staples speaker system, and Buss couldn't resist grooving to it in her seat.

But Tim Hardaway Jr. got hot from the outside. Andrea Bargnani and Alexey Shved did well operating in the pinch-post weak side of the triangle offense. And the Knicks beat the Lakers, enabling Jackson to stand a little taller as he walked off while Lakers fans serenaded him.

Far more meaningful battles loom to be won at the May 19 draft lottery, the June 25 draft and July 1 free agency. And just as with their competing Carmelo pitches last summer, Phil and Jeanie will actually be in the same beaten boat—both trying to get out and reach much-needed dry land.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.