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For a few moments last Friday night it seemed like old times at the Staples Center. The Spurs were in town, led by the metronomically consistent Tim Duncan, and the Lakers were mounting a second-half comeback, spearheaded as always by their superhero, Kobe Bryant. As Los Angeles started to turn the tide, the capacity crowd cheered, grown men in designer jeans did little jigs, and Jack Nicholson leaped--O.K., rose stiffly--out of his front row seat to exhort his boys. In years past this was the moment when one of the Lakers stalwarts would step forward to make a big play, be it Shaquille O'Neal swatting a shot into the third row, Rick Fox draining a jumper, Derek Fisher taking a charge or Karl Malone roaring to the basket.
Instead, point guard Chucky Atkins dribbled the ball off his foot.
On the next offensive play, forward Caron Butler caught a pass along the sideline and bobbled it out-of-bounds. And two possessions later center Chris Mihm-- O'Neal's well-meaning if overmatched replacement--ran a give-and-go with Bryant but overestimated the go by about five feet, throwing the ball to a surprised Spurs defender.
Who, the fans could be forgiven for wondering, were these guys? Atkins, Butler and Mihm sounds more like a law firm than part of a Lakers dynasty, and the next NBA fan who can pick backup point guard Tierre Brown out of a lineup will be the first.
This account may sound grim, but the truth is that the Lakers played quite well, at least by this season's standards, in what turned out to be a 105-96 loss to the Spurs. Los Angeles held its own against a bigger, deeper, more talented team, keeping the game much closer than expected--and Atkins, Butler and Mihm all had their moments. Afterward reporters even asked Bryant whether the game could be considered a "good loss." That should tell you all you need to know about the new-look Lakers, who, if O'Neal were to give them a nickname from his new perch in Miami (page 48), might be called the Big Mediocre.
In the interest of fairness it's still very early, as new coach Rudy Tomjanovich has pointed out repeatedly, and the Lakers are not only incorporating nine new players--right now Bryant is the only returning starter--but are also missing three of their top seven: center Vlade Divac (herniated disk), forward Devean George (recovering from left ankle surgery) and forward Slava Medvedenko (bursitis in his right heel).
Still, if anything was revealed in the first week of the season, in which L.A. was 2-2 after Sunday night's 106-90 home win over the lowly Atlanta Hawks (which prevented L.A.'s first 1-3 start since 1995), it was that the Lakers' success will depend almost entirely upon one man: Bryant. This is no surprise, and it's exactly how Bryant wants it. After all, to paraphrase the Pottery Barn rule, he broke the Lakers, so now he owns them. From the look of things Kobe's crew will be neither especially bad nor especially good. An informal poll of scouts who have seen them thus far gives L.A. somewhere between 40 and 45 wins this season. Not that this has affected the Lakers' popularity; season-ticket holders renewed at a 97% rate, and L.A. still boasts the most expensive average seat price in the league. But take Bryant out of the equation, and--as was the case whenever he took a breather during the home opener last week--a lot of cellphones flip open and a lot of people head for the nachos stand. It seems only fitting, then, that any appraisal of the team be conducted through Kobe-tinted glasses.
Say what you want about Bryant, you won't be the first. O'Neal called him a "clown" and a "joke." Former coach Phil Jackson described him as a "callous gun for hire." Even Seattle SuperSonics guard Ray Allen, motivated by who-knows-what, chimed in this preseason by saying that Bryant would be "very selfish" this year. The first two men certainly have bones to pick with Bryant, and both were complicit in the demolition of the Lakers dynasty, but it's safe to say that the Kobester's reputation is less than stellar right now. (There's also the matter of a certain civil suit that has yet to be settled.)
Thus, it's not surprising that Bryant, who is nothing if not sensitive to criticism, has made a concerted effort to win over his new teammates. So far it's working. To listen to them, the notoriously isolated Bryant--a guy who never even shared his iPod playlist--has morphed into an �berteammate. Mihm tells of Bryant-organized dinners during training camp and "the type of chemistry and camaraderie I haven't experienced since college." Slovenian rookie guard Sasha Vujacic describes Bryant as "crazy awesome," and forward Lamar Odom refers to him as "a special individual." Even Tomjanovich has lauded Bryant as everything from "amazing" to "bionic."
This may bode well for the Lakers' chemistry, but it also points up their biggest weakness: Kobe worship. A team cannot win with one Mr. Burns and four guys fighting to play the role of Smithers. The main thing deferred by excessive deference is winning. The most glaring example is Odom. Last season with the Heat he played like an All-Star, averaging 17.1 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists while running the offense from the point-forward position. So far, with the exception of the Spurs game, in which he scored 24 points, Odom has looked lost. A gifted playmaker, he's been reduced to standing on the far side of the court as Bryant operates, then spotting up and shooting three-pointers--which are not his forte (31.0% for his career).