Whose team is it? Senior writer Ric Bucher spent many days with Kobe, Shaq and Phil, and prepared this story for ESPN The Magazine. Here's Part 2:
Shaq is well aware of the shift. When the Lakers flew into Portland, an adidas billboard featuring Kobe's face, five stories high, greeted them on their trip from the airport. There's a mural on the hotel nearest to the Staples Center that shows Kobe soaring to the hoop. In the Air Canada Centre before the Lakers faced the Raptors, a man held a simple black-on-white sign that read, "Hey Shaq! 0 for 12?" in reference to a recent record-setting 0-for-11 effort from the free throw line against the Sonics. A few rows up, a family held up an ornately painted banner that read, "We Luv Kobe."
Shaq joined the dot-com frenzy by starting Dunk.net, a sporting apparel line that planned to let customers design their own gear online. Innovative but poorly marketed, Dunk.net slashed its staff from 40 to four. Kobe, meanwhile, is in the midst of an enormous advertising push for his self-designed kicks, "The Kobe," with old-economy adidas. His profile, in a rendering like Caesar's on a Roman coin, graces the shoe's inner lining.
The entire onslaught has left The Daddy feeling helpless. As a big man, he depends on Kobe to get him the ball. If he expresses his frustration publicly, it becomes a nationwide story and a distraction for the Lakers. Besides, he waged a public-relations war with Penny in Orlando and John Q. sided with the guy closer to his size. He hears the adolescent screams and sees the No.8 jerseys. He knows it would be no different this time.
Kobe knows too. An opportunist without a conscience, he cares no more about Shaq's duress than he would about Iverson or VC falling down and giving him the ball for a breakaway slam. No time for sympathy on the fast track to preeminence.
It takes a healthy dollop of ruthlessness to become the league's best player at 22. Kobe knew Shaq would need time off after going so deep into the playoffs and wouldn't be physically ready to match last season's performance. So Bryant spent the summer honing and refining his shot. It's hard to fathom his claim of burying 2,000 shots a day until you see last-second threes whipping through the net, pull-up J's floating home no matter how abruptly he stops and baseline fadeaways falling regardless of how many hands are in his face. The degree of difficulty is breathtaking at times, but he's shooting nearly 50% because he's a voracious offensive rebounder; he dunked three putbacks so hard in a game against the Rockets that his shoulder was sore the next night against the Mavs.
"Everybody expected me to come back and do the same things I did last year," Kobe says. "But I've improved so much. I have to prove to myself and the league that I'm a better player. Every night. For 48 minutes."
Had Shaq worked as diligently on his free throw shooting, maybe this would be a fair fight. But that problem is even worse this season, something he attributes to watching some old high school game tapes with Orlando neighbor Tracy McGrady last summer. Shaq liked how he looked shooting free throws and decided to return to his high school form. "I got cute and switched up," he said. "Never change if something you're doing works."
He has since switched back, but though he's slowly improving, the damage has been done. For some reason -- a nagging ankle and Achilles injury, his reluctance to go the free throw line or a belief he's not going to get the ball -- O'Neal is not posting up as aggressively as he did last year. He remains one of the league's top rebounders and his blocked shots are up, but his scoring and field goal percentage have slipped. Even he admits, "I've been a step slow in certain situations."
But none of that, he feels, is justification for restructuring the offense. "Don't judge my game on last year because the same things aren't happening," Shaq says. "We had a certain program and it worked. I don't see us doing that same program.
"Don't say 'we' have a problem. I'm not a guard, I have to be fed the ball. When the dog is fed, he'll guard the yard. When he's not, anybody can come in. Right now, I feel like a token big man, like Luc Longley or Chris Dudley. And that's not my game."
It's a valid, if somewhat exaggerated, complaint. In an OT loss to the Warriors, Shaq and Kobe ran a pick-and-roll on every possession down the stretch. Not once did Kobe lob the ball to Shaq, even after Shaq bluntly told him during a timeout, "Drop it off." Kobe wouldn't because he figured Shaq would get fouled and go to the free throw line, where he's shooting a career-low 38.6%. Better to bet on himself, since he's shooting a career-high 47.7% from the floor and a career-high 87.3% from the line.
"If Shaq were a 70% free throw shooter, it would make things so much easier," Kobe says. "We have to know our strengths and weaknesses. I trust the team. I just trust myself more. Yeah, we won last year with the offense going through Shaq. But instead of winning series in five and seven games, this year we'll have sweeps."
But the offense hasn't been the problem -- the Lakers led the league in scoring with 101.2 ppg through 33 games. Defensively, though, they've slid from last season's sixth in points allowed to 22nd and from first in field goal percentage to 15th. Jackson and Shaq argue the switch from an interior to a perimeter offense has caused the slide. Phil's take: Kobe's early-clock jumpers mean an aging Lakers' team must spend more time on defense. Longer shots also result in longer rebounds and more fast breaks, exposing L.A.'s weak transition D.
Perhaps. But when Shaq had six blocks against the Warriors, not one came in helping Horace Grant, who took the brunt of Jamison's 51 points. When Damon Stoudamire was lighting up Mike Penberthy in a Dec. 13 Portland victory, Penberthy was doing his job by forcing Stoudamire into the middle for help. O'Neal simply wasn't getting there in time.
Shaq's take: Don't make me one-dimensional. I'm better than that. You want my D, you've got to use my O.
Kobe's take: No, I don't.
Click here to see what Phil should do.
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