- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

LOS ANGELES | Since the summer of 2004, it has been one of the few knocks basketball fans have had against Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant.

It comes up as a strike against Bryant when discussing what kind of legacy he will leave someday. It pops up as a black mark in the foolish yet popular “Who’s better, Michael or Kobe?” debates. It resurfaces as a jab against Bryant when taking into account the four fruitless postseasons that have highlighted Bryant’s solo act.

Critics say Jordan won six rings on his own but Bryant can’t win a ring without Shaquille O’Neal.

If Bryant hadn’t made the Lakers get rid of O’Neal, Los Angeles would have had three or four more titles, according to another school of thought.

But as Bryant and the Lakers prepared Wednesday to play in their second NBA Finals in as many years and the franchise’s 30th finals overall, the 30-year-old guard insisted winning one on his own isn’t a motivating factor.

“Not at all. It means nothing,” said Bryant, whose Lakers will host the first two games of the finals. “To me it’s about winning another one just because I want to win another one. People think Shaq would have won a championship without me on that team. They’re crazy, you know what I’m saying? We needed Robert Horry, Derek Fisher, Ron Harper and everybody else as well. I’m not worried about that at all.”

Since O’Neal was traded after Los Angeles fell to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals five years ago, both Bryant and the Lakers have searched for the key to a championship both in an individual and a team sense. With O’Neal no longer in purple and gold, Bryant’s role changed from sidekick to leading man. Management has tried to piece together a supporting cast that makes Los Angeles the complete title threat rather than a one-man band.

As Lakers coach Phil Jackson pointed out, his triangle offense ran through O’Neal during the Shaq-Kobe era. The strategy was to work the ball around, find ways to get the ball into O’Neal and flow from there. Bryant played almost exclusively at the top of the key and reacted to the options created by getting the ball in O’Neal’s hands.

Now, however, Bryant is the top scoring threat and plays more along the wing, which gives him more scoring opportunities. But he is also required to serve as distributor as defenses respond to him.

As he has gotten older, Bryant seems to have learned he can’t do it on his own. The Lakers last season brought back Fisher to run the point alongside Bryant. They were developing Andrew Bynum to serve as the post presence when the young, promising center when down with injury. The Lakers then swung a trade to bring in Pau Gasol to keep their title hopes alive, and Bryant - with Gasol and Lamar Odom as his running mates - did, in fact, get his team to the finals.

But the Celtics - led by Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen - proved too formidable an obstacle.

A year later, the Lakers are more seasoned and now have Gasol and Bynum together down low. Odom has turned into a strong sixth man, while fourth-year small forward Trevor Ariza has blossomed into a quality perimeter defender in addition to competently playing off Bryant on offense.

The Lakers had somewhat of a subdued feel to them Wednesday, but Bryant explained that the quiet calm was a result of having been in this position only a year earlier. This time, however, there’s a stronger focus.

“We’ve been through this hoopla last year,” he said. “I think a lot of it was obviously new to everybody, guys that haven’t been there before. This time around just kind of know what to expect, just be ready to go. … We’re determined to try to come up with a better result. The last few times we’ve been there, it’s been the short end of the stick. Hopefully this time around will be better.”

Jackson notices the hunger in Bryant now is indeed stronger than ever. And although his star says winning a ring as the leading man isn’t any greater motivation, the coach has suspicions to the contrary.

“I think if you take any team, San Antonio winning without [David] Robinson for Tim Duncan, I think it’s just another evolution,” said Jackson, who will be going for his record 10th NBA championship as coach. “It’s not specific about the individual. It’s about how we made the adjustments to get to the place where we’re at. I think that’s important, and I think it’s important that a person gets a chance to win. I think that’s what it’s all about.”

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