- The Washington Times - Monday, June 21, 2004

Jerry Buss will come to rue the day he acquiesced to the childish whims of Kobe Bryant and began the process of breaking up the most captivating team in the NBA.

The dismantling of the Lakers already is under way, with the Zen master being shown the door and Shaquille O’Neal looking to be next.

This is not about rebuilding in the customary sense, although the Lakers could use an infusion of younger legs.

This is about turning the team over to a shot-obsessed, self-absorbed, legally challenged player who would have jumped to another team if his objection to the Zen master and O’Neal was not resolved.

Now we know whose team it is after five contentious seasons, three championships and four appearances in the NBA Finals.

The way the Lakers have been dragged through the mud since falling to the Pistons in the NBA Finals, you might think they were coming off a 30-win season and O’Neal was pushing 43 instead of 33.

This team was perhaps a Karl Malone injury away from claiming its fourth championship in five seasons. He was the third cog the Lakers so desperately needed in the series with the Pistons. His hobbled state and then absence changed everything about the Lakers, and no one was able to ease the increasing burden on Bryant and O’Neal.

If Buss wants a quick preview of the Lakers next season, he might replay the tape of the NBA Finals.

As talented as Bryant is, he could not overcome the long arms and help defense of the Pistons. Except for his game-tying shot near the end of regulation in Game2, Bryant was caught in the clutches of a fitful shooting slump.

Worse, the owner of the Lakers is staking the immediate health of the franchise to a player who could wind up playing on a Colorado prison team. If nothing else, Bryant’s logistical demands are certain to increase next season as the judicial system endeavors to determine his guilt or innocence.

We already have seen the outcome of a premature breakup, specifically with the Bulls in 1998. Jerry Krause was in a hurry to show he was a master builder and purged his graying championship roster soon after the empty champagne bottles were discarded.

His hubris sentenced the Bulls to irrelevance and eventually led to his departure. Given the lockout-induced abbreviated schedule of the 1999 season, the Bulls, aging roster and all, would have been the favorite to capture their fourth consecutive championship and seventh in nine seasons.

That sort of nose dive is not before the Lakers, if only because Bryant is only 25 and hardly at the peak of his physical powers. Of course, this assumes he beats the rape charge in Colorado.

Yet as far as one-man shows go in the NBA, it just does not work. Ask Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson.

Ask Kevin Garnett how it was in Minneapolis before high-quality help arrived. Ask Tim Duncan how it was not to have David Robinson at his side in the last postseason.

Unlike the best of the best, Bryant has shown little inclination at this point in his career to make the less gifted around him better.

With O’Neal as the all-purpose fixer in the three-second lane, Bryant was living every perimeter player’s fantasy, and all he could do was pout and complain about the obvious need to dump the ball to the highest-percentage option in the offense.

Bryant won the long-running power struggle.

But he will lose in the end.

Although O’Neal is not as active as he once was, not as dominating as in the past, he is still unlike any other player in the NBA. He remains a load to defend, plus an unselfish passer if teams deploy a second defender on him.

Bryant, if he weren’t so full of himself, should have been able to see that the team would have been his in time as O’Neal ages, that the transition could have occurred incrementally the next couple of seasons, and without rancor.

Bryant, though, could wait no more, and so he looks increasingly petty and small.

Bryant seemingly had it all on the basketball floor, and it still was not enough to satisfy him.

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