For a few moments last Friday night it seemed like old times at the Staples Center. The Spurs were in town, led by the metronomically consistent Tim Duncan, and the Lakers were mounting a second-half comeback, spearheaded as always by their superhero, Kobe Bryant. As Los Angeles started to turn the tide, the capacity crowd cheered, grown men in designer jeans did little jigs, and Jack Nicholson leaped--O.K., rose stiffly--out of his front row seat to exhort his boys. In years past this was the moment when one of the Lakers stalwarts would step forward to make a big play, be it Shaquille O'Neal swatting a shot into the third row, Rick Fox draining a jumper, Derek Fisher taking a charge or Karl Malone roaring to the basket.
Instead, point guard Chucky Atkins dribbled the ball off his foot.
On the next offensive play, forward Caron Butler caught a pass along the sideline and bobbled it out-of-bounds. And two possessions later center Chris Mihm--O'Neal's well-meaning if overmatched replacement--ran a give-and-go with Bryant but overestimated the go by about five feet, throwing the ball to a surprised Spurs defender.
Who, the fans could be forgiven for wondering, were these guys? Atkins, Butler and Mihm sounds more like a law firm than part of a Lakers dynasty, and the next NBA fan who can pick backup point guard Tierre Brown out of a lineup will be the first.
This account may sound grim, but the truth is that the Lakers played quite well, at least by this season's standards, in what turned out to be a 105-96 loss to the Spurs. Los Angeles held its own against a bigger, deeper, more talented team, keeping the game much closer than expected--and Atkins, Butler and Mihm all had their moments. Afterward reporters even asked Bryant whether the game could be considered a "good loss." That should tell you all you need to know about the new-look Lakers, who, if O'Neal were to give them a nickname from his new perch in Miami (page 48), might be called the Big Mediocre.
In the interest of fairness it's still very early, as new coach Rudy Tomjanovich has pointed out repeatedly, and the Lakers are not only incorporating nine new players--right now Bryant is the only returning starter--but are also missing three of their top seven: center Vlade Divac (herniated disk), forward Devean George (recovering from left ankle surgery) and forward Slava Medvedenko (bursitis in his right heel).
Still, if anything was revealed in the first week of the season, in which L.A. was 2-2 after Sunday night's 106-90 home win over the lowly Atlanta Hawks (which prevented L.A.'s first 1-3 start since 1995), it was that the Lakers' success will depend almost entirely upon one man: Bryant. This is no surprise, and it's exactly how Bryant wants it. After all, to paraphrase the Pottery Barn rule, he broke the Lakers, so now he owns them. From the look of things Kobe's crew will be neither especially bad nor especially good. An informal poll of scouts who have seen them thus far gives L.A. somewhere between 40 and 45 wins this season. Not that this has affected the Lakers' popularity; season-ticket holders renewed at a 97% rate, and L.A. still boasts the most expensive average seat price in the league. But take Bryant out of the equation, and--as was the case whenever he took a breather during the home opener last week--a lot of cellphones flip open and a lot of people head for the nachos stand. It seems only fitting, then, that any appraisal of the team be conducted through Kobe-tinted glasses.
Say what you want about Bryant, you won't be the first. O'Neal called him a "clown" and a "joke." Former coach Phil Jackson described him as a "callous gun for hire." Even Seattle SuperSonics guard Ray Allen, motivated by who-knows-what, chimed in this preseason by saying that Bryant would be "very selfish" this year. The first two men certainly have bones to pick with Bryant, and both were complicit in the demolition of the Lakers dynasty, but it's safe to say that the Kobester's reputation is less than stellar right now. (There's also the matter of a certain civil suit that has yet to be settled.)
Thus, it's not surprising that Bryant, who is nothing if not sensitive to criticism, has made a concerted effort to win over his new teammates. So far it's working. To listen to them, the notoriously isolated Bryant--a guy who never even shared his iPod playlist--has morphed into an √ºberteammate. Mihm tells of Bryant-organized dinners during training camp and "the type of chemistry and camaraderie I haven't experienced since college." Slovenian rookie guard Sasha Vujacic describes Bryant as "crazy awesome," and forward Lamar Odom refers to him as "a special individual." Even Tomjanovich has lauded Bryant as everything from "amazing" to "bionic."
This may bode well for the Lakers' chemistry, but it also points up their biggest weakness: Kobe worship. A team cannot win with one Mr. Burns and four guys fighting to play the role of Smithers. The main thing deferred by excessive deference is winning. The most glaring example is Odom. Last season with the Heat he played like an All-Star, averaging 17.1 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists while running the offense from the point-forward position. So far, with the exception of the Spurs game, in which he scored 24 points, Odom has looked lost. A gifted playmaker, he's been reduced to standing on the far side of the court as Bryant operates, then spotting up and shooting three-pointers--which are not his forte (31.0% for his career).
"This is my first time playing on the weak side of the ball, but it's something that I'm going to get used to," Odom says, nodding like a man who believes that if he says something often enough, it will be true. "Sometimes Kobe's so good with the ball that I almost watch instead of playing alongside him." Then Odom volunteers an especially ill-fitting comparison to Michael Jordan & Co. "Guys like Steve Kerr flourished in that role."
This brings us to a fundamental problem: Neither Bryant nor Odom, the Lakers' best players, is much help to the offense without the ball in his hands. Neither man is suited for coming off screens or spotting up--when open, Bryant often waits for a defender so he can jab-step--and neither is used to being a cutter. So far, Tomjanovich's half-court offense has been geared toward setting up Bryant or Odom for a one-on-one opportunity. The coach primarily uses pick-and-rolls with Odom and, of course, plenty of isolation plays for Bryant, who's intent on getting to the line more this year. (Through Sunday he led the league with 60 free throws, many of which came after jumping into a defender's arm to draw a foul.)
Until Divac returns and Brian Grant fully recovers from a neck injury, the Lakers' post-up game will consist of the occasional entry pass to a big man in the high post. "Their offense is simple to the point that it's almost boring," says one scout who saw the Lakers play last week. "It's a lot of the same plays Rudy was running with the Rockets--pick-and-rolls and isos. Kobe has free rein to do whatever he wants, pretty much. He could lead the league in scoring."
When the Lakers' system works, as it did against the Hawks' porous defense and in an 89-78 win over the Nuggets on opening night, the team is an exciting, fast-breaking spectacle. When Denver doubled Bryant, he patiently found cutters (Mihm had a career-high 23 points), proving once again that he's an excellent passer when he wants to be. On defense--an area in which the team lacked discipline against the Jazz and the Spurs--the Lakers' perimeter quickness led to transition baskets.
Against Utah, however, in what may turn out to be a familiar roller-coaster pattern, the Lakers set franchise-record lows in field goal percentage (29.4) and assists (seven) in an ugly 104-78 road loss. The second half was noteworthy, however, because it provided a glimpse into Bryant's psyche. Here was the situation everyone had wondered about: Surrounded by foot soldiers and with his team struggling, would Bryant rally the troops behind him or try to go it alone?
If you guessed go it alone, you've just won your very own copy of Jackson's The Last Season. Down 15 to start the fourth quarter, Bryant brought the ball upcourt, called a play for himself and went at Jazz guard Raja Bell. When Bell forced Bryant to pick up his dribble, Bryant did not pass to an open teammate but instead pump-faked and threw up a wild fadeaway three-pointer. Play summary: 16 seconds elapsed, zero passes, zero points. Undeterred, Bryant continued his solo assault, at one point handling the ball, calling the play and shooting on five of six possessions (and when he did pass it was only after being double-teamed). "I wonder," a courtside NBA scout said loudly and sarcastically as Bryant brought the ball upcourt, "who's going to shoot it this time?"
Tomjanovich, predictably, defends his star player, saying, "It's a new system, so some guys have been struggling. Sometimes Kobe decides, We've got to try to win this game, and he's going to try to do more, which is just natural. I've heard that criticism, and it's just laughable. What do you want the guy to do?"
For his part Bryant, who has refused most one-on-one interviews this season and has often bristled at questions he deems inappropriate, talks of the importance of trusting his teammates. "If a guy's open," he says, "I pretty much give him the ball."
That, many former teammates might argue, is debatable. Regardless, the first-week trend of Bryant's passing in the first half and trying to take over in the second does not bode well for the Lakers, not because Bryant is shooting too much--he is, after all, the most gifted offensive player in the league--but because he relishes the one-on-five challenge. One reason he never liked playing with O'Neal is that together, they were supposed to win. Bryant needs to exceed expectations; if he were a movie character, he would be Kevin Costner's stubbornly prideful Roy McAvoy in Tin Cup, refusing to lay up when there's a more difficult and spectacular shot available.
So Bryant has what he always wanted: the chance to carry a team. Still, he might be wise to heed the words of Spurs point guard Tony Parker: "It's going to be hard for him," Parker said after Friday's game. "He doesn't have the big guy in there anymore." Then Parker paused. "You can't do everything by yourself, you know?"