Where Ya Going Now, Eddie Jones?

“My name is gossip. … I maim without killing. I break hearts and ruin lives.”
– anonymous poem, taped to wall of Jerry West’s office.

By Glenn Nelson
Seattle Times NBA Reporter

LOS ANGELES – It was one of those rare days here, when the chill and the clouds and the smog made everything gloomy, blotting out not just the sun but, in some ways, the logic. A day when Eddie Jones had to get a passport. Though his team, the Lakers, had instructed him to do so, the symbolism of the act escaped him.

He is Where-Ya-Going-Now Eddie Jones, after all. The one the Lakers constantly seem on the verge of shipping elsewhere. To Sacramento, Minnesota, Charlotte. Name a podunk NBA city, where nothing’s going on, it’s freaking cold or they don’t like to pay their star players, and rumor probably has it, Jones is headed there.

“Stupid,” is Nick Van Exel’s description of all the rumors. Van Exel, of course, already has been jettisoned to a podunk NBA city, Denver. No whispers preceded that transaction. Just blam, he’s gone. Better that way, though, than twisting like his buddy Eddie Jones, dying that agonizing death of self-worth.

“They’ve already got an All-Star guard,” Van Exel continues, referring to the Lakers and Jones. “He’s young, talented, great defensive player, good offensive player. What is there to change?”

It is one of the great Southern California mysteries, right up there with the LaBrea tar pits, the giant doughnuts at Randy’s and all the infatuation with plastic and silicone. See, if you took Jerry West’s longtime blueprint for the perfect Laker – long, athletic, versatile defensive finisher – the manifestation would be Eddie Jones.

Not only that, Jones gets plenty love at the Great Western Forum, where the only thing more fashionable than showing up late or leaving early seems to be not showing up at all. “Ed-die! Ed-die!” they frequently and fervently chant, as if doing so might conjure the glory days of Showtime and Coop-a-loops. Some nights, the 27-year-old Jones indeed seems the reincarnation of Michael Cooper. Some nights, he’s much better.

A lot of those latter nights appear linked to the Sonics. Jones was the first two-guard to attach himself defensively to Gary Payton, at his own behest no less, starting a trend Coach Paul Westphal is trying to render obsolete this season. Jones also has gleefully sunk the Sonics, setting career playoff highs in consecutive games last year, prompting Payton to bemoan, “Eddie Jones is killing us.”

Now the question is, who’s zooming whom? The barrage of trade rumors has eroded the two-time All-Star’s trust in the only NBA organization for which he has played. They have confused him, sent him signals that he is unwanted, unsupported. He says he’s not sure if he wants to play with the Lakers anymore, and saying he’s not sure is almost like saying he doesn’t.

“If I was given the choice? With all the things going on right now, I can’t even answer that,” Jones says. “I don’t even know. Sometimes it seems what they want me to do is demand a trade. But I like to do the opposite of what they want. I don’t want to make it like I’m the bad guy. I never want to go out as the bad guy.”

If Jones won’t exactly say he needs to move on, then one of the persons closest to him will.

“I feel it’s the wrong place for him,” says Temple Coach John Chaney, who nurtured Jones into an Atlantic 10 player of the year and NBA lottery pick. “He’s just not a Tinseltown kind of guy. That team wants to win, but it is in between wanting to win and wanting to entertain. That’s just not Eddie.”

To which Jones responds, “I listen to Coach a lot.”

This is exactly the kind of talk that nearly drove West, the Lakers’ executive vice president, out of the NBA. So badgered and bothered by the speculation that oozes through the league almost as lifeblood, West last season uncharacteristically retreated into silence. People around here took to calling him Jerry Stressed and anticipated his exit.

West stayed, but the Lakers became the buzzsaw in the rumor mill. In between plugging holes created by talk that Dennis Rodman was being forced upon him by owner Jerry Buss, West has had to deal with escalating trade rumors involving Jones. West has been stamped in this league as an honorable man, so when he says the Jones talk troubles him, it must.

“Out of all the players who have ever played here, I don’t think anyone has been subjected to the things he’s been subjected to,” West says of Jones. “There has not been one team in the league that has not called about Eddie Jones. To say we wouldn’t ever trade him would be an absolute lie. But has he been close to being traded? Not really.

“He’s a wonderful kid. I like him personally a lot. That’s why I get so frustrated with the media when things appear that have absolutely no substance at all. When you see a great player mentioned in a trade and you see another player, equally as great, sometimes you have to consider things.”

Jones is utterly convinced that the Lakers have done more than consider. Early last season, rumors hit like lightning bolts that Jones and Sean Rooks were being dealt to Sacramento for Mitch Richmond. Stung, Jones made it clear he didn’t want to go, saying, “I want to be competing after May.” Then his first time into Sacramento, he dropped a career-high 35 points on the Kings, a performance dripping with messages for the Lakers.

By last week, Jones had changed his tune about leaving town. He torched Charlotte for 16 first-half points, en route to a 19-point performance, including four of five three-pointers, that was intended more to assuage the Hornets. Afterward, Jones said he wouldn’t mind being traded to Charlotte, with Elden Campbell, for Glen Rice.

“I don’t even care anymore,” Jones says, explaining his change of heart.

He doesn’t care because he doesn’t understand. One of his newest teammates, Derek Harper, says, “I think the Lakers recognize what they have in Eddie Jones,” yet they have a funny way of showing it. When it appeared L.A. was on the verge of a sign-and-trade deal with Minnesota, Laker players spoke glowingly of the acquisition of Tom Gugliotta. No one lamented the possible loss of Jones.

That’s despite Jones making the Western Conference All-Star team the past two seasons. He’s also been ranked among the NBA’s top 10 in steals during each of his four seasons in the league. Last season, he was second-team all-defense. Those aren’t the kind of credentials that usually get reassigned to another team.

Among the most prevalent theories on why the Lakers would trade Jones is that he and Kobe Bryant are near-duplicates. Van Exel disputes the supposition, saying, “I always thought they could be the next Michael (Jordan) and Scottie (Pippen).” While Jones and Bryant can play both backcourt spots, Bryant is strong enough – and still growing – to also play forward.

“When Eddie and I are on the court together,” Bryant notes, “it’s scary.”

Scary in a basketball way, yes, but scary in a non-basketball sense, too. The Lakers already are into Bryant for $71.8 over the next six years and rolled out $121 million to get Shaq to L.A. So they face a monumental financial decision with Jones, whose contract expires after next season.

West says he believes a team can pay big money to three players. Jones appears eager to test that. He sent a fairly ominous message by firing his agent three weeks ago. While it’s true the new collective-bargaining agreement diminishes the need for agents, it’s especially true for players who believe themselves entitled to maximum salary levels. For Jones, that could mean a seven-year deal worth $105,875,000.

That staggering figure, plus the possibility of Jones using free agency to move elsewhere, was one of the factors that scared Minnesota out of a sign-and-trade deal landing them Jones and Campbell for Gugliotta. Another factor was a belief shared by others that Jones doesn’t step up in big games.

Jones figured he’d dropped that label by blazing the Sonics out of the postseason last spring, but then up came Utah and all the old question marks. His shooting dropped from 54.5 percent from the field and 59.1 from three-point range against the Sonics to 41.2 and 28.6 against the Jazz. And, most telling, the Lakers got swept out of the conference finals.

Pointing fingers at Jones mistakes his role on the Lakers, however. Rather than the cause of their fortunes or failures, he is more of a barometer. Offensively, he is the Laker conduit – things run through him, not to him. So if an opponent is doubling Shaq and allowing the Lakers to run, Jones is tossing in threes and throwing down dunks – which is what happened against the Sonics. The craftier Jazz chose to slow tempo and erase everyone around Shaq. Since the Lakers don’t showcase him and Jones refuses to force the issue himself, he’s usually the first to disappear.

“Eddie’s able to score without a lot of plays being run for him,” Harper says. “That’s a valuable player. A lot of players need the ball in their hands all the time to be effective. Eddie is not a player who forces his shot and does a lot of ill-advised things. He plays within himself. He’s one of the few younger players who really knows the game through and through.”

Maybe Jones understands too much for his own good. Even West says, “Sometimes you have to go on your own. You have to put yourself in a position where you absolutely demand the ball. You can’t put yourself in a situation where one shot determines if you played well.”

Though Jones has the temperament to be an effective third cog on a good team, he also has the talent to be the main cog on a good team. Whether he wants a longer-term shot at such, well, he just doesn’t know. There are a lot of things Eddie Jones doesn’t know these days.

“Do I feel supported? Do I feel wanted?” he asks. “When you see your name in trade rumors every day, I don’t think you can feel anything. I just feel numb.”

Jones shrugs his slight shoulders: “I’d rather be happy.”

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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