- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Kobe Bryant has led the Lakers to the outer fringe of the playoff chase in the Western Conference, and you cannot take that away from him.

He desperately wanted to be the lead player of the Lakers, and so now he is the lead player of an irrelevant team, a marginal team. It is all his to embrace and celebrate, this mess, this destiny.

Bryant has begun the rest of his NBA career, and it is a distinctly different career. He was shooting a career-low 42.5 percent going into last night’s game, because there is no Shaquille O’Neal to draw a second defender. There is only center Chris Mihm, who fashioned a one-point performance against Brendan Haywood.

This is as Bryant envisioned it. He wanted a role player at center, so he could have the ball in his hands on every possession and it would be his show. And now it is all his show, only it is not a riveting show. It is a tired show. We have seen it already, with Tracy McGrady in Orlando, Paul Pierce in Boston and Allen Iverson in Philadelphia.

Bryant is learning there is a lot to be said for O’Neal, although he never would say it.

Wherever O’Neal goes, his presence turns one of the perimeter players into an All-Star, whether it is Dwyane Wade in Miami or Bryant in Los Angeles or Penny Hardaway in Orlando.

To think Bryant fought with O’Neal over whose team it was.

We know the answer now, don’t we?

Of course, Bryant is putting up big numbers, even if he has to shoot the ball 100 times a game to do it. He has a chance to lead the NBA in scoring, as if the achievement will count for anything in the standings.

Here is what Bryant has wrought: The Wizards are in a much better position than the Lakers. The Wizards are a team with a genuine future, even if they are struggling because of injuries. They swept the season series from the Lakers — unthinkable as that prospect would have been the last few seasons — and they actually coasted in the second half Monday night against Bryant and his supporting cast.

The Lakers never really mounted a run in the second half, which tells you how anemic they are beyond Bryant. If Bryant is enduring a 6-for-22 shooting performance, as he did against the Wizards, you can dismiss the Lakers.

Bryant took a number of bad shots, sometimes because the shot clock was winding down. He looked to the referees to blow a whistle on a couple of occasions.

This is a different Bryant from the one who used to be considered the No. 2 player in the NBA after O’Neal. Far fewer NBA observers would make that claim after viewing Bryant in the post-O’Neal era.

If you think about it, Bryant hardly measures up to Dirk Nowitzki, another NBA marksman. Nowitzki has been far more adept at keeping the Mavericks afloat following the departures of Steve Nash, Antawn Jamison, Danny Fortson and Antoine Walker.

In an upside-down way, Mark Cuban is the NBA Executive of the Year, given how he has improved so many teams around the league this season. The Suns, Wizards, Sonics and now the Celtics have all benefited immeasurably from Cuban’s impetuousness.

Yet, because of Nowitzki, the fallout from Cuban’s fantasy league-like maneuverings has been greatly minimized.

The Mavericks are on pace to win about 54 games this season and have as much reason as the Suns and Sonics to think they are the No. 2 team in the conference. That is hardly the case with Bryant and the Lakers.

By the time they conclude this six-game road trip — Bryant and O’Neal meet tomorrow night in Miami — their playoff prospects are apt to be diminished further.

O’Neal is having a fine laugh this season. He has made his point. His team owns the best record in the East, and it is a team with serious championship aspirations.

Bryant can enjoy the postseason from his home. It is all on him, as he orchestrated it to be.

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