Kobe holds the keys

Kobe holds the keys
by Steve Kerr, Yahoo Sports
February 17, 2004

Steve Kerr
Yahoo Sports
The All-Star weekend was pure entertainment for a country obsessed with celebrity and flair. Where else on earth could one witness Paris Hilton "coaching" a basketball game featuring movie stars and talk show hosts while chatting on her cell phone and cradling her pet rat, er, dog?

Who didn't love seeing Beyonce crooning her way down from the Staples Center rafters, or Shaq dunking the ball and ending up in Ruben Studdard's lap (oh the humanity)?

And it was hard not to be impressed by Tracy McGrady dunking his own pass off the backboard (symbolic of his efforts in Orlando).

And talk about all style and no substance – did anyone witness the "game" the rookies and sophomores staged on Friday night? The defense was so bad even the Kansas City Chiefs were embarrassed.

But the "Entertainment Tonight"-style debauchery that NBA fans enjoyed over the weekend may end up being a mere appetizer for the juicy, sleazy entree that awaits us all: the stretch run for America's favorite dysfunctional team – the Los Angeles Lakers.

The unit that began the season 18-3 and looked like a team that might win 70 games since has gone 13-16 while nearly imploding on a weekly basis.

Kobe Bryant, who has a hard enough time coexisting with teammates, periodically flies off to Colorado to deal with his impending rape trail. Then he slices his finger in an accident while moving boxes at his home and misses two weeks. And with all of this going on, he openly talks of his desire to leave the Lakers this summer as a free agent.

Shaquille O'Neal spends most of training camp complaining about not receiving a contract extension (even though he has three years left on his current deal), then goes out and reinjures his calf, which causes his foot to start hurting.

Karl Malone, who had missed six games his entire 19-year career, hurts his knee on a fluke play. He still is on the injured list seven weeks later.

And Phil Jackson, the coach who deftly has managed this menagerie for the past four-plus years, gets word from management that contract negotiations for a new deal have been halted. When asked about the news, Kobe Bryant brusquely states, "I don't care."

Meanwhile, Gary Payton has become the voice of reason for this team. Talk about your irony of ironies.

The fact is: When the Lakers are healthy and playing together, they are the best team in the NBA. If they can have their players together for a good six weeks or so heading into the playoffs, they will be the favorites to win the title. If not, however, there are more than a few teams capable of making a run and capturing the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

Because of Tim Duncan, the San Antonio Spurs would be the favorite. But the Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves and Dallas Mavericks all have the capability to win. And now it appears that the New Jersey Nets and Indiana Pacers do, too.

And questions abound. Will the Lakers get healthy? Can Kobe focus on playing rather than his legal troubles or his impending free agency? Can Shaq be his dominant self? Can he make free throws? And can Phil Jackson figure out a way to make it all work?

Having played for Jackson, I always give him the benefit of the doubt. He's a brilliant coach – a master at motivating players who tends to a team's issues and helps his squad peak at the right time.

Remember during Los Angeles' second title run under Jackson, Kobe and Shaq feuded so much during the regular season that nobody thought they could even communicate with each other, much less win a championship together. But by the playoffs the Lakers were unstoppable and won 15 out of 16 games en route to the title.

Jackson has a way of letting situations settle themselves by constantly keeping the lines of communication open with his team. He doesn't act like a dictator and tell his team what they should do. He tends to coerce his players into acting together for the common good. The manner in which he does it frequently angers some players – like Kobe – but it's always good for the team as a whole.

Assuming Karl Malone returns to health, the Lakers will win or lose the NBA title based on one man: Kobe Bryant. Jackson will have the team primed. Shaq will be ready to dominate down low. Payton and Malone already have demonstrated their willingness to put the team first. But it's up to Kobe to find a way to focus on doing what he needs to do to help the team win.

It would be easy to understand if his legal situation hurts his focus. But if his problems stem more from his shaky commitment to the team and his desire to leave the team this summer, it would be difficult to comprehend.

Kobe is a student of basketball history, and he should know that a player's legacy is ultimately judged by his number of championship rings. Whether people consider the Lakers to be Shaq's team or Kobe's team is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Winning is all that matters, and a player's chances at a championship can be precious and few.

The choice is Kobe's. He can submit himself to the team and possibly win another title, further cementing his place in NBA lore. Or he can turn the rest of the Lakers season into a continuation of All-Star weekend – a whole lot of flair, plenty of style, but no substance. And no championship.

Steve Kerr is Yahoo! Sports' NBA analyst. Send Steve a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Tuesday, Feb 17, 2004 11:49 am, EST

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