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2 LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Jack McCallum
October 28, 2002
Even after Shaquille O'Neal returns from an injury, the champs will rely on the leadership of the increasingly Michael-like Kobe Bryant
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October 28, 2002

2 Los Angeles Lakers

Even after Shaquille O'Neal returns from an injury, the champs will rely on the leadership of the increasingly Michael-like Kobe Bryant

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PROJECTED LINEUP

2001-02 record: 58-24 (second in Pacific)
Phills scored: 101.3 (3rd)
Points allowed: 94.1 (9th tie)
Coach: Phil Jackson (fourth season with Lakers)

STARTERS

PVR*

2001-02 KEY STATS

SF

Rick Fox

114

7.9 ppg

4.7 rpg

3.5 apg

0.82 spg

42.1 FG%

PF

Samaki Walker

188

6.7 ppg

7.0 rpg

0.9 apg

0.41 spg

51.2 FG%

C

Shaquille O'Neal

2

27.2 ppg

10.7 rpg

3.0 apg

2.04 bpg

57.9 FG%

SG

Kobe Bryant

6

25.2 ppg

5.5 rpg

5.5 apg

1.48 spg

46.9 FG%

PG

Derek Fisher

156

11.2 ppg

2.6 apg

0.94 spg

41.1 FG%

41.3 3FG%

BENCH

PVR*

2001-02 KEY STATS

F

Robert Horry

160

6.8 ppg

5.9 rpg

2.9 apg

1.10 bpg

39.8 FG%

G-F

Devean George

181

7.1 ppg

3.7 rpg

1.4 apg

0.87 spg

41.1 FG%

F

Tracy Murray#

251

5.7 ppg

1.3 rpg

0.5 apg

41.1 FG%

38.5 3FG%

G

Brian Shaw

270

2.9 ppg

1.9 rpg

1.5 apg

0.43 spg

35.3 FG%

C

Soumaila Samake?#

323

1.4 ppg

1.6 rpg

0.41 bpg

37.5 FG%

41.7 FT%

#New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college season)
?2000-01 statistics
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 92)

Could this be the year that Kobe Bryant equals—it seems premature to suggest surpasses—Michael Jordan as a player? The similarities between the two continue to grow, as has the 24-year-old Bryant, who added 15 pounds of muscle in the off-season. Bryant has Jordan's gait (pigeon-toed but graceful), his temperament (seemingly implacable, then suddenly incendiary) and his versatile game (the fluid moves to the basket, the fall-away jumper, the relentless darting around screens on defense). And now, thanks to a Jordanesque compulsion for working out that includes frequent game-day weightlifting, Bryant has Jordan's body, too. "I went from big to bigger, from thick to thicker, from swoll to swollen," says the 6'7", 225-pound Bryant, sounding a bit like You Know Who. Kobe's wife, Vanessa, also put on a few pounds of late; she is pregnant with their first child, a girl, due in February.

If it seems too early to conjure up the Kobe-channels-Michael theme, well, there isn't much new to say about the three-time defending champions, who are dedicating the season to Chick Hearn, their Hall of Fame play-by-play man who died in August. Shaquille O'Neal, Butch to Kobe's Sundance, begins the season as a footnote—he may miss part of November after off-season surgery on his right big toe—and coach Phil Jackson has not yet begun in earnest the mind games certain to accompany his quest for a four-peat. The Lakers' supporting cast, which took heat for failing to supply adequate succor to the two superstars before the sweep of the Nets in the Finals, is more or less the same, though there is less of backup guard Brian Shaw, who shed 15 pounds.

But clear it away, and there stands Bryant, the easygoing assassin who has toughened up by sparring with one of his bodyguards from time to time. "I can hit him on the shoulders and chest," says Bryant with a smile, "but he's not allowed to hit me." To a degree Kobe is still the junior member of the triumvirate that rules the Lakers. He will listen to Jackson—having been chastened last season after rebelling against Big Chief Triangle—and defer to O'Neal, whose public proclamations tend to be more lapidary, or at least nuttier. But look for the junior member to become the true leader of this team. It was Bryant who persuaded Shaw & Co. to get in peak physical condition, and it was Bryant whose strong hints about playing in the Olympics have O'Neal and Jackson considering a 2004 trip to Greece.

"When I get back, there's going to be trouble, I can tell you that," said O'Neal, "but until then the lieutenant general [ Bryant] can hold down the fort." The best all-around player in the game will do a whole lot more than that.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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