The new, improved Kobe has become so integral to the Lakers that without him, they are a losing team: 8-9 at week's end when Bryant was out, 35-14 when he suited up. During his last appearance in Eagle, as Bryant strode stiffly into Ruckriegle's courtroom and took a seat in a straight-backed wooden chair at the defense table, his teammates were 1,300 miles away, preparing for that game against woeful Atlanta. Before the tip-off a few of the Lakers were exuberantly overconfident, asking one another, "Can you name five Hawks?" On the court, however, the Lakers minus Bryant (and Malone) were reminded that they are, at times, an average team, an inauspicious portent for the franchise's potentially Kobe-less future.
O'Neal may be, as he insists, the most dominant player in the game, but without Bryant drawing defenders away from the paint and opening up the lane, Shaq hasn't always succeeded this year in taking over games. After the upset in Atlanta, Jackson was told that Kobe might have to appear in court in late April, during what would probably be the fifth and sixth games of the first round of the playoffs. His reaction: "Ouch."
Yet as much as the Lakers need the dynamism and athletic brilliance of Kobe Bryant, he needs the refuge of his team and his game even more.