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Kobe key to Lakers’ future now

Phil Jackson’s gone.Shaquille O’Neal’s gone.The future of the arguably the planet’s most recognizable sports franchise – the Los Angeles Lakers – is now in Kobe Bryant’s 25-year-old hands.

Take reports by various media outlets during the past two years to heart, and the perennial All Star has had his fingers crossed for just such an occasion:

A chance to run his own show.



As Michael Jordan’s heir apparent, Bryant, it’s been said, has long wanted to get out from under both Jackson’s and O’Neal’s considerably LARGE shadows and create a legacy of winning all his own, a la His Airness.

Bryant, who jumped from the Lower Merion High School’s varsity to the NBA eight summers ago, set the current scenario in motion when he opted out of his contract with the Lakers two days after the Detroit Pistons pulled the plug on Showtime in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.




In doing so, Bryant, an unrestricted free agent, could entertain offers from any and all comers who could afford his services.

The New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers, among others were mentioned as possibilities as Bryant’s next address, but he sided with loyalty – as well as a $137-or-so million contract over seven years – when he announced Thursday he’s be staying with the Lakers.

This announcement came a day after the Lakers shipped O’Neal to the Miami Heat for forwards Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Brian Grant and a future draft pick.

With Odom and Butler, both 24, Bryant gets oodles of athleticism – a trait the aging Lakers sorely missed last year.

Grant, on the other hand, has seen better days, but may have enough gas in the tank for another go-round or two.

A trio of solid players for sure, but all will no doubt defer to Bryant’s every whim, which is just the way he, and the Laker brass, want it.

Cut Bryant’s current legal situation out of the mix – he’ll stand trial for alleged felony sexual assault latter this summer – and the Laker faithful are still looking at a bout of growing pains without the Diesel in the paint and the Zen Master on the bench.

Bryant’s skill with the ball in his hand is unquestioned, but it’s unclear how he’ll react when teams, who no longer have to put a body – or three – on Shaq, focus all of their defensive attention on him.

Gone are the days when Bryant could depend on Shaq to open up huge lanes in the half court set. The easy points Bryant’s chomped up down low over the past several years look to be much harder to come by.

While Bryant is one of the league’s top three or four players, it’s unclear if he has the ability to make players around him better.

The most recent evidence of his lack of this talent in this area is the NBA Finals.

Sure, he hit more than his share of clutch shots and carried the Lakers on his back at times, but that did little to inspire his supporting cast.

Derek Fisher, Devean George and Slava Medvewhatever were non-factors in that five-game embarrassment L.A. endured.

Bryant’s got to take a long look in the mirror to find the answer.

So in the end, Bryant got his wish.

He’s the Lakers’ man.

But with the all of the pressure laid squarely on his shoulders, Bryant’s no longer got Shaq to catch him when he falls.

Maybe he should have been a little more careful about what he wished for.

ooo

Keith Jiron is a sports reporter for The Union. He can be reached at 477-4244 or via email at keithj@theunion.com.


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