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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

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
fallaway 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. --J.M.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH MUSCLING UP Bryant let his teammates know that he wants a fourth title by coming to camp packing 15 more pounds.

The Lakers have been led in scoring by Kobe Bryant or Shaquille
O'Neal in 240 of their last 244 regular and postseason games.

an opposing team's scout sizes up the Lakers

"It's about time Phil Jackson got credit for being one of the
alltime great coaches. Defensively, the Lakers last season held
opponents to the lowest field goal percentage and three-point
percentage in the league. They were second in defensive
rebounds, second in fewest turnovers committed and ninth in
assists. They're a well-coached, well-disciplined team. Jackson
has sustained excellence in two places with different kinds of
players. Sure, he had the best players, but he's keeping them
hungry. I would have thought complacency might have set in with
Shaquille O'Neal, but it hasn't.... Making Kobe Bryant work
defensively has to be part of your game plan; you can't let him
rest and then take it out on you at the offensive end. Kobe
isn't Michael Jordan on defense, but he gives a good effort....
The Lakers are developing replacements for their key role
players. Devean George would be a starter on a lot of other
teams, and he'll eventually take over for Rick Fox. In the next
year or two Kareem Rush will probably replace Brian Shaw. The
knock on Rush was that he's a little soft, but they used to say
the same thing about Fox before he found his niche with the
Lakers.... The one player who might be affected by age is Robert
Horry, their third threat in the big games. The starterat power
forward, Samaki Walker, has yet to show signs of consistency....
Derek Fisher isn't a pure point guard, and on most teams he
would be a solid backup, but he fills the Lakers' needs by
playing good on-the-ball defense, keeping them organized in the
triangle, knowing when to push the tempo and hitting open
shots.... If you took Kobe off that team I bet they'd still win
the championship, because Shaq's presence does so much to make
all the other guys better. It's a joke that Shaq doesn't win the
MVP award every year, no matter how many games he misses."


Tough D

Fair D

No D

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


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%


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[1] 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[1][2] 323 1.4 ppg 1.6 rpg 0.41 bpg 37.5 FG% 41.7 FT%

[1] New acquisition
[2] 2000-01 statistics
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college season)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 92)