Letting Fly
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 anyone remembers
is that those teams won."

Can the Lakers repeat with O'Neal as the second option? "We shall
see," Shaq says. "One thing 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."

Chicago's Tim Floyd
Coaching Toward Oblivion

When he was coaching at Iowa State three seasons ago, Tim Floyd
would have welcomed comparisons to Clair Bee, the Hall of Fame
coach who led LIU to NIT championships in 1939 and '41 and whose
.826 winning percentage is the highest in NCAA history. Following
in Bee's pro footsteps is a different story, though, and
unfortunately for Floyd, that's just what he is doing. Bee went
34-116 with the Baltimore Bullets from 1952-53 to '54-55, and his
.227 winning percentage stood as the NBA's worst 150-game mark
for more than four decades. Then Chicago general manager Jerry
Krause chose Floyd to oversee the rebuilding of the Bulls
following the 1997-98 season. By last Saturday, after a 99-91
loss to the Sixers, Floyd and his 33-123 (.212) career record
were nestled comfortably under Bee at the bottom of the league's
coaching register.

Statistical evidence notwithstanding, it is not easy finding
someone to assert that Floyd is a bad coach, let alone the worst
ever. Chicago's 12-man roster has a combined 15 years of
experience, and only the Clippers have a payroll lower than the
Bulls' $29.7 million. "Maybe some coach could win a few more
games," says Trail Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy, "but you ain't
going to win 10 more with that team."

Floyd is also hampered by Krause's insistence that he run the
triangle offense despite the Bulls' inability to grasp it. "Tim
has his hands tied," says former Chicago guard Matt Maloney,
who's now with the Hawks. "It's coming down from Jerry, so he
really can't implement an offense that might change things."

Despite a 3-21 start, the 46-year-old Floyd has not let his
frustration spill over into his dealings with his players. After
a lackluster first half at Dallas this month, Chicago's first
possession of the third quarter consisted of Ron Artest dribbling
aimlessly before losing the ball out of bounds. Floyd dispatched
Corey Benjamin to replace Artest, who jogged off the court
wearing the look of a man who expected either to be chewed out or
to be banished to the end of the bench. But Floyd had a few
gentle words with the second-year swingman and sent him back on
the floor 34 seconds later. "That's what I respect about the
guy," says Benjamin, the only holdover from Floyd's first Chicago
team. "No matter what happens, we're still in the gym the next
day going hard, and he's still teaching us."

Until reinforcements arrive, teaching is all Floyd can do. But
will help ever come? The Bulls will have $25.5 million of cap
space next year--easily the most in the league--but there's no
reason to believe they'll be able to use it. Over the summer
Krause threw piles of cash at Eddie Jones and Tracy McGrady, each
of whom decided he'd rather play for a competitive team in
Florida. (The best Chicago could do with its small fortune was
sign swingman Ron Mercer and backup center Brad Miller.) One of
next summer's top free agents will be Michael Finley, who's from
suburban Chicago, but he has said little to give Bulls fans hope
of a homecoming.

Despite the team's dire straits, Floyd is signed up through
2004-05. "I'd be disappointed in myself if I walked away from
this," he says. "I think that to be happy in life, you have to
have something to look forward to, and you've got to like what
you're doing. I like what I'm doing." --Mark Bechtel

For scores, schedules and stats, plus the latest news and
analysis from Phil Taylor and Marty Burns, go to
cnnsi.com/basketball.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Bryant's increase in shots has thrown the title-winning, O'Neal-centered attack out of whack. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS
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