- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2001

The way Shaquille O'Neal sees it, Kobe Bryant is getting too big for his basketball britches.

Not surprisingly, Bryant sees it differently.

As Bryant told ESPN the Magazine: "Turn my game down? I need to turn it up. I've improved. How are you going to bottle me up? I'd be better off playing someplace else."

Uh-oh. The two super egos are at it again in La La Land, feuding over who gets to be "the Man," and all the incense in the Zen master's bag of psychological tricks is failing to halt the flow of me-first rhetoric.

O'Neal wants the offense to be centered around him, darn it, and that's that. Bryant wants the same thing and he, along with everyone else, notices the asterisk that comes with O'Neal's demand.

It is awfully hard to be "the Man" when you are shooting .391 at the free throw line. Opponents note this soft spot in Godzilla's frame and respond accordingly. They foul him. Sometimes they give him a playful bear hug as the ball is being inbounded. Sometimes, with the Lakers in the bonus situation at the free throw line, a coach, not minding the absurdity of it, deploys his 12th man to foul O'Neal.

O'Neal seems to be overlooking this elementary aspect of the issue. He wants to be "the Man,' and at times he is just that, if not the freakiest physical specimen ever to wear a pair of basketball shorts. But at other times, he is an enormous liability.

O'Neal is not just a poor free throw shooter. He is descending into the company of Olden Polynice and Chris Dudley, which is not the kind of company a player of his stature should want to keep.

Bryant carries no such baggage into a game. He is a special talent, the best there is in the NBA today, ahead of Michael Jordan at this stage of his development. He takes a bad shot or two a game, as all scorers do, and he occasionally likes the challenge of a 1-on-3 situation. But that's his youth. That's his need to be creative, to strut his stuff, and that's all right.

As it is, Bryant is averaging a league-leading 29.6 points a game this season, and no one has to gulp hard after he draws a foul near the end of a game. He is shooting .872 at the free throw line.

Despite the perceptions, Bryant has not forgotten O'Neal or his teammates. His 4.7 assists a game attest to that.

Yet O'Neal feels compelled to grumble in public and question Bryant's motivations. He points to last season, the championship season, when the Lakers fashioned a 67-15 record and he was the NBA's MVP. That was his team, he says. This team, Bryant's so-called team, is 23-11. You figure it out. That's easy. Different seasons. Different teams.

This team is missing a shooter, a third cog in the attack. This team misses Glen Rice. This team has not unlocked the mystery of Isaiah Rider. This team also has lost some of its passion on defense.

O'Neal is shooting 8 percentage points higher than Bryant this season, .558 to .475 to be exact. But that is a somewhat misleading statistical comparison, given it involves a post player and perimeter player.

The 3-pointer, one of Bryant's weapons, is the X factor in shooting percentages, both blessing and curse.

Thirty-three percent is accepted as the rough measure of competence with 3-point tries, largely because two 3-pointers out of six attempts result in the same number of points as three two-pointers out of six attempts.

Points per shot attempt is a more accurate barometer of a player's worthiness as a scorer, and on that count, Bryant compares favorably to O'Neal. Bryant is generating 1.29 points per shot attempt to O'Neal's 1.36.

If it makes the Zen master feel any better, Jordan, in his final season, generated 1.25 points per shot attempt.

It comes down to this: Bryant is a finisher, O'Neal something less because of his anemic free throw shooting. Like it or not, O'Neal needs someone with him to finish a game, and if his unhappiness with Bryant ever results in a parting, he will find that finishers are a whole lot harder to land than a Scottie Pippen-like No. 2 guy.

Bryant is a No. 1 guy, O'Neal 1-A.


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