By Eric Neel
Page 2

The Shaq trade was a bad move. I've said it before, and I'll say it again.

But, like Dave Wannstedt says, you've got to move on.

In the moments after the Shaquille deal went down, I saw only doom and gloom for the Lakers. But I've been out in the woodshed, doing my best Caractacus Potts, tinkering and scheming, and I think there's actually a chance they could be all right. There's even a chance they could be better than all right. There's even an outside chance they could be real good.

Kobe Bryant
Kobe 2.0 could lead the Lakers a long way.

Hear me out ...

For starters (assuming he isn't in prison), they've got Kobe Bryant. He's pretty good. And they don't just have Kobe Bryant; they have Kobe "They Said It Couldn't Be Done" Bryant. They have Robert Conrad as Kobe Bryant. They have Kobe Bryant as the young Cassius Clay. The Sports Guy is right about Shaq and the Vengeance Factor, but we shouldn't underestimate the Helen Reddy factor, either.

That's right. I'm talking the "you and me against the world" factor. Kobe knows just about everyone is down on him. He knows they figure him for the punk who forced out the Daddy and Dr. Phil. He knows he's alone in this thing now, that's it's all on him now.

And the thing is, he likes it like that. Hell, he loves it like that. He's at his best when it's like that. Look at the same-day games coming back from Colorado this year, when he had to have been feeling like the loneliest guy on the planet.

And it won't just be the bunker mentality he'll have working for him this season, either. If he is acquitted at trial, opposing teams will be looking at a guy playing with new life, with a new appreciation for life. He'll be a house of fire, hungry and joyful every time he laces up.

You put these two things -- a massive chip on his shoulder and a big, big bounce in his step -- together, and we may be looking at the very best of Kobe Bryant in the coming year. (Remember, he'll only be 26 years old when the season begins.) Which is saying something.

But a great Kobe, great as he is and will be, won't be enough.

Here's where things get tricky. Kobe's got to give a little to get a lot back. He's got to be less Kobe and more Kobe 2.0.

Everyone expects this to be his team. Everyone expects he'll shoot more often than Mo Rocca strikes an ironic pose. That's his history. That's who he is. And, the thinking goes, with Shaq out of the mix, Kobe will own the ball, demand the ball, hold the ball, and be the ball every time down.

Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Kobe Bryant & Brian Grant
The guys L.A. acquired for Shaq could mesh well with Kobe.

Everyone knows this will happen. They know it like they knew Ali would jab and move in Zaire. (Sorry, side bet with my editors; if I work in two or more plausible Ali references in a Lakers column, I get a free toaster oven.) They know it the way Apollo knew Rocky was a southpaw.

And because they know it, because every team the Lakers play will know it and will work up their double-team and swarm strategies to stop it, Kobe should come out like Balboa in the second fight, playing against type, passing when they think he's going to shoot, finding guys out of the double, throwing skip passes, working pick-and-rolls, driving and dishing.

He doesn't need 40 a night. He needs 18 or 20, with maybe eight assists and nine boards every time out. He's got the skills and he'll have the element of surprise in the early going; and then, over the long haul, he'll have a balanced, tested, team offense full of guys who can score and aren't afraid of crunch time.

Think about it: The one thing everyone is saying Kobe can't be is a team player. This is what they once said of Jordan. And, in his never-ending quest to be Jordanesque, what could be better for Kobe than to release Kobe II: The Wrath of Team? Seriously, this should be Rudy T's pitch to his franchise player: Shock the world. Be the man by not being the man.

It's crazy, right? But is it? I mean, what if he sees this? What if he knows the biggest middle finger he can fling at the world of doubters and critics (myself included) is to finally do what Phil and Shaq were begging him to do all along? What if he shares the ball, because now it's his idea and not theirs?

Then things could get interesting.

You could run Kobe 2.0 with Luke Walton, a schooled rebounder and passer who is already Good and, judging by Game 2 of last month's Finals, ready for the leap to Very Good. You could run Kobe 2.0 with Lamar Odom, who can score in transition, rebound, and run the point when you need it. You could run Kobe 2.0 with Vlade, the best interior-passing big man in the game, and GP, who is slowed, but can still dish.

With a team like this, the ball could move around the half-court like a pinball. This team could bring back memories of the early-'70s Knicks. They could make the Kings look like ham-handed ballhogs by comparison. There could be easy buckets falling off trees.

Then you could replace GP with Sasha Vujacic, bring Kareem Rush, Caron Butler, or Devean George in off the bench, spell Vlade with Brian Cook or Brian Grant (who'd mostly just be good for picking boards and throwing outlets), and run. For days. Like the Showtime days.

They could bring fastbreak basketball back to the NBA. They could press on the defensive end like Hubie's boys do down in Memphis.

Suddenly, they're the team nobody wants to play and fans everywhere want to watch. They play the beautiful game and they mix it up with the helter-skelter game. Like the Pistons, they put team first; and, oh yeah, they feature Kobe Bryant, the superstar who knew he had to tone it down to turn it up.

The West is vicious, no doubt; but I swear this team could compete. If the Grizz -- featuring Pau Gasol, Bonzi Wells, Mike Miller and Jason Williams -- can win 50, can't this team with Kobe, Lamar, Vlade, and Luke, win 50?

Luke Walton
And some of the Lakers' leftovers, like Luke Walton, could come into their own.

Can't they hang tough with the Spurs, Kings, and Rockets by making them work on defense, forcing them to cover the extra passes, making them pay for any lapses on the perimeter with quick interior passes and/or open jumpers from Kobe and Rush?

And if they run, I mean all-out, can't they neutralize guys like Duncan and Yao a bit by making them haul their asses up and down the floor?

I think they can.

They still need work, of course. They need a pure point. I've said before that they ought to be making pitches to Memphis for Earl Watson, or to Seattle for Antonio Daniels, or even to Detroit for Mike James (who ran their butts into the ground during his stints in The Finals), even if it means giving up Payton to get it done. And they could use a good perimeter defender who can pass and shoot ... Bobby Sura, maybe?

But they've got no money to spend after Kobe's big deal, so they may have to go with what they've got now.

Which means it all falls on Kobe.

And I may be crazy, but I think he can do it.

Kobe 2.0, I mean.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2. His "On Baseball" column appears weekly.




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KOBE 2.0