"It's going to be hard for him to do, because he's not going to get in a lot of quality games over the summer," warns Harris. "What he has to work on is his team game."
Wasn't this the same tiling Jordan heard the first seven years of his career? Until June 1991, when he escorted Magic's Lakers out of the NBA Finals, the mantra Jordan heard was that he would never be considered as great a player as Johnson or Bird until he won a championship and proved he could elevate the play of his teammates.
Jordan was stubborn about it. He was the league's top scorer for four consecutive seasons without taking Chicago to the Finals. During the Bulls' five subsequent NBA title runs, he has continued to lead from the front. Bryant's circumstances in Los Angeles are different. By no means is the team built around him, the sixth man; in fact, he says some of his teammates have complained to him that he should be less aggressive on offense.
"If you watch Jordan, you'll see he's not looking for the spectacular play anymore," Harris says. "His highlight films are of him kissing the trophy."
Jordan, meanwhile, has been giving his protégé the opposite advice, as he did after the All-Star Game. "We were talking, waiting to go into the room for interviews," Bryant says. "Michael said, 'It's important for you to stay aggressive. You just have to continue to be aggressive.' "
O'Neal has been offering Bryant similar advice. "When you look at the NBA champions, most of them had a one-two punch," says O'Neal, imagining himself and Bryant as that combination.
This debate—should Bryant be more aggressive or more of a team player?—is going to define his career. He is the Lakers' best one-on-one player, and his ability to create his own shot, as well as dish off to his teammates, will be crucial to the team's success in the playoffs. Bryant is under the most intense scrutiny, knowing that he will receive a large part of the blame if the Lakers lose. He will have to trust his instincts if he is to become the great player who leads his teammates to a title.
"I've been fighting the people around me this year, as far as them questioning my shot selection and how I should adjust to them," he says. He has adjusted somewhat. In a recent road game against the Toronto Raptors he could be seen looking first for the open man, receiving the ball in different positions and passing when he could—things often asked of less gifted players. But he also will have to be stubborn. If he continues to develop his vision, as Johnson believes he will, the Lakers will have to adapt to his strengths, on his terms.
Johnson predicts that Bryant will learn to read the game, to let it flow through him as if he were part of the circuit. "It's going to take him two more years," Johnson says. He has been of this opinion since the conference semifinals last May, when he watched the Lakers' postseason end in Game 5 against the Utah Jazz with four Bryant air balls—one on the final shot of regulation, three more in the disastrous overtime. It was as if Johnson were looking at himself on the TV screen. Twice in his first five years he was blamed for playoff elimination: in the first round against Houston and in the Finals against the Celtics. Each time Johnson recovered to win a championship the following year.
Last May, on the first morning of the Lakers' off-season, a few hours after the team's plane had returned from Utah, Johnson was in the gym at UCLA when who walked in but the 18-year-old himself. "That was just like me," Johnson says. "I loved seeing that from him. That's how I reacted, too. This is where he needs to be."