"This is my first time playing on the weak side of the ball, but it's something that I'm going to get used to," Odom says, nodding like a man who believes that if he says something often enough, it will be true. "Sometimes Kobe's so good with the ball that I almost watch instead of playing alongside him." Then Odom volunteers an especially ill-fitting comparison to Michael Jordan & Co. "Guys like Steve Kerr flourished in that role."
This brings us to a fundamental problem: Neither Bryant nor Odom, the Lakers' best players, is much help to the offense without the ball in his hands. Neither man is suited for coming off screens or spotting up--when open, Bryant often waits for a defender so he can jab-step--and neither is used to being a cutter. So far, Tomjanovich's half-court offense has been geared toward setting up Bryant or Odom for a one-on-one opportunity. The coach primarily uses pick-and-rolls with Odom and, of course, plenty of isolation plays for Bryant, who's intent on getting to the line more this year. (Through Sunday he led the league with 60 free throws, many of which came after jumping into a defender's arm to draw a foul.)
Until Divac returns and Brian Grant fully recovers from a neck injury, the Lakers' post-up game will consist of the occasional entry pass to a big man in the high post. "Their offense is simple to the point that it's almost boring," says one scout who saw the Lakers play last week. "It's a lot of the same plays Rudy was running with the Rockets--pick-and-rolls and isos. Kobe has free rein to do whatever he wants, pretty much. He could lead the league in scoring."
When the Lakers' system works, as it did against the Hawks' porous defense and in an 89-78 win over the Nuggets on opening night, the team is an exciting, fast-breaking spectacle. When Denver doubled Bryant, he patiently found cutters ( Mihm had a career-high 23 points), proving once again that he's an excellent passer when he wants to be. On defense--an area in which the team lacked discipline against the Jazz and the Spurs--the Lakers' perimeter quickness led to transition baskets.
Against Utah, however, in what may turn out to be a familiar roller-coaster pattern, the Lakers set franchise-record lows in field goal percentage (29.4) and assists (seven) in an ugly 104-78 road loss. The second half was noteworthy, however, because it provided a glimpse into Bryant's psyche. Here was the situation everyone had wondered about: Surrounded by foot soldiers and with his team struggling, would Bryant rally the troops behind him or try to go it alone?
If you guessed go it alone, you've just won your very own copy of Jackson's The Last Season. Down 15 to start the fourth quarter, Bryant brought the ball upcourt, called a play for himself and went at Jazz guard Raja Bell. When Bell forced Bryant to pick up his dribble, Bryant did not pass to an open teammate but instead pump-faked and threw up a wild fadeaway three-pointer. Play summary: 16 seconds elapsed, zero passes, zero points. Undeterred, Bryant continued his solo assault, at one point handling the ball, calling the play and shooting on five of six possessions (and when he did pass it was only after being double-teamed). "I wonder," a courtside NBA scout said loudly and sarcastically as Bryant brought the ball upcourt, "who's going to shoot it this time?"
Tomjanovich, predictably, defends his star player, saying, "It's a new system, so some guys have been struggling. Sometimes Kobe decides, We've got to try to win this game, and he's going to try to do more, which is just natural. I've heard that criticism, and it's just laughable. What do you want the guy to do?"
For his part Bryant, who has refused most one-on-one interviews this season and has often bristled at questions he deems inappropriate, talks of the importance of trusting his teammates. "If a guy's open," he says, "I pretty much give him the ball."
That, many former teammates might argue, is debatable. Regardless, the first-week trend of Bryant's passing in the first half and trying to take over in the second does not bode well for the Lakers, not because Bryant is shooting too much--he is, after all, the most gifted offensive player in the league--but because he relishes the one-on-five challenge. One reason he never liked playing with O'Neal is that together, they were supposed to win. Bryant needs to exceed expectations; if he were a movie character, he would be Kevin Costner's stubbornly prideful Roy McAvoy in Tin Cup, refusing to lay up when there's a more difficult and spectacular shot available.
So Bryant has what he always wanted: the chance to carry a team. Still, he might be wise to heed the words of Spurs point guard Tony Parker: "It's going to be hard for him," Parker said after Friday's game. "He doesn't have the big guy in there anymore." Then Parker paused. "You can't do everything by yourself, you know?"