The Los Angeles Lakers needed help. For the first time under coach Phil Jackson, they looked vulnerable.
With center Shaquille O'Neal laboring because of poor conditioning and off-season toe surgery, the Lakers seemed uncomfortable and unprepared to win a fourth straight NBA title.
The Lakers needed some help. They needed Jackson to concoct a game plan to compensate for O'Neal's ineffectiveness while utilizing all of Kobe Bryant's considerable talents.
This was the biggest moment of Bryant's young career. It was a chance for him to help the Lakers while also helping to establish himself as the league's next great player - the player most likely to replace Michael Jordan, if you will.
It's fair to say that Bryant, with Jackson's permission and prodding, is having an MVP season.
He's playing like he believes he's better than everyone else, and he wants everyone to acknowledge how good he is.
In the 12 games since Jackson granted Bryant unlimited offensive freedom, the Lakers have gone 10-2. They went from three games under .500 to four games up in the win column and right back in the playoff chase.
Bryant has scored at least 35 points in all 12 games and 40 or more in eight straight, including games of 52 and 51. During his tear, Bryant's scoring average increased nearly three points a game, from 27.2 to 30.1.
With his performance, the way he carries himself, and with the way his teammates respond to him, Bryant made it clear he's a superstar in every sense. And he's only 24.
He's second in the NBA in scoring, fourth in steals and 11th in assists. He leads the league in field-goal attempts and is third in free throws attempted. He ranks fourth in minutes per game (41.7).
His air of confidence, his ruthless refusal-to-lose and go-for-the-throat mentality are the ingredients in the Lakers' turnaround.
The better that Bryant performs, the closer the NBA inches to the realization that the next Jordan may be at hand.
We've had that belief before, starting with Grant Hill and later with Vince Carter. But our belief waned each time.
There's a lot of pressure on Bryant to perform spectacularly. Right from the start, Jordan played at a different level. He dominated from his first game.
Time has a way of making you forget. Jordan averaged more than 30 points a game in six of his first seven NBA seasons. It's taken Bryant seven years to reach that level just once.
Jordan played on a different level than Bryant. Bryant's still on a level below Jordan, whose career averages are 30.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.4 steals.
Bryant would have to play as well as he's playing right now for the next 10 years. Now that O'Neal has reached a point where his performance is beginning to slide, Bryant might be forced to sustain his performance. The Lakers may not be able to count on Shaq putting up 30 points and 15 rebounds every night.
Bryant the next MJ?
Absolutely. He's looking more and more like the chosen one. But he'll have to prove his greatness over time.
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