Kobe Bryant is testing his limits—and Shaq's
The Lakers have been loaded with early-season surprises. At week's end the reigning champs had lost four of their last seven games, and their 17-9 record ranked fourth in the Western Conference. More surprising still has been the effect of Kobe Bryant's emergence as the team's main scoring option, which has Shaquille O'Neal grumbling about his secondary status. "When you have the players we have, you should look to get everybody else involved and try to cut back a bit—that's what I would do," O'Neal said after having been outshot 31 to 21 by Bryant in a 109-105 home loss to the Bucks on Dec. 12. It didn't help that Bryant, suffering from a sprained right pinky, made only eight of those attempts in one of the worst shooting nights of his five-year career.
After Sunday's 104-101 overtime win at Toronto, Bryant was averaging a league-high 29-3 points and making 46.0% of his 23.2 attempts per game, to O'Neal's 25-6 points and 55.5% shooting on 19.5 tries. Last year the MVP-winning O'Neal led the NBA in scoring average (29-7) and field goal percentage (57.4) and ranked second in the league in shots (21.1), while Bryant averaged 22.5 points on 46.8% shooting and 17.9 attempts. Despite his frustrations, O'Neal has yet to confront Bryant—much less shove him, as he did during an argument in a pickup game in January 1999. "This is something the players should know: Throw it to me," O'Neal said in discussing Bryant. "I'm 60 percent down there. They should know I'll get doubled, and I can get it right back to them and give them an easier shot."
Coach Phil Jackson doesn't seem too concerned about Shaq's diminished role; he blames the defense for the Lakers' sluggish start. At week's end Los Angeles was tied for 24th in average points allowed, giving up 97.5 after permitting 92.3 last year, sixth-lowest in the league. Jackson believes the D will improve as O'Neal fully recovers from a sprained left ankle and a sore left Achilles tendon.
Those ailments, along with the off-season trade of Glen Rice, have led to Bryant's firing away more often. "A lot of people thought I would come in playing the same as last year, but that's not me," says Bryant. "Look, I can go on either of two paths. I can listen to what everybody is saying and play it simple, basic, and score 20 with seven assists. Or I can stay aggressive and push it to the limit"
Bryant feels he is held to a higher standard than Vince Carter, Allen Iverson and other young stars. It's a fair point: When Bryant has the occasional bad game, you can almost hear the chorus of experts crying, Same old Kobe, trying to do it all by himself. "It really used to frustrate me," Bryant says. "For me to get the recognition other players get, I have to do double what they do. I think it started back when I decided to skip college. A lot of experienced people told me I'd made a mistake. By playing well, I'm pretty much telling them they didn't know what they're talking about."
But Bryant's most consistent critic has been Jackson. Kobe and Shaq together have outscored the rest of the team this season, and Jackson wants better distribution from Bryant, who has taken on added ball handling duties while point guard Derek Fisher recovers from a broken right foot. Jackson has chided Bryant for not helping Isaiah Rider adapt to the triangle offense; instead of becoming a reliable third option, Rider was averaging only 7.8 points in 19.2 minutes through Sunday. "I'm not going to babysit him," Bryant says. "If it's getting more people involved, creating opportunities for people, I'll take responsibility for that. As far as blaming me for a person's output, that's a little too much."
Jackson has recently complimented Bryant for mostly playing within the offense. "He's a 22-year-old kid," says Jackson, who during the Milwaukee loss was imploring Bryant to slow down and to pass instead of dribble. "Sometimes with Kobe, it's not 'we,' it's 'me.' And in that regard you've got to [tell him] what's really important. Well, the team is really what's important."
Other contenders are happy to see Shaq cast in a more limited role. "I have no problem saying Kobe is one of the five best players in the league," says 76ers coach Larry Brown, "but [in Shaq] we're talking about the most dominant kid in a long time." However, the Lakers are taking the right approach in letting Bryant explore his talents, even if it costs them a regular-season loss or two. General manager Mitch Kupchak points out that L.A.'s five championship teams in the 1980s had three different leading scorers—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1979-80, '81-82 and '84-85), Magic Johnson ('86-87) and Byron Scott ('87-88). "Nobody remembers that now," Kupchak says. "All any-one remembers is that those teams won."
Can the Lakers repeat with O'Neal as the second option? "We shall see," Shaq says. "One tiling I know: If you want the big dog to guard the big yard, you've got to give the big dog something to do. You've got to give him toys. You've got to feed him. You can't have him sit and do nothing."