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The Inside Track | J.A. Adande

At This Point, Whoever's MVL Is Also the MVP

November 24, 2001|J.A. Adande

Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are in conflict again, only this time it's good for the Lakers.

Each player is starting to put together a strong case as the NBA's most valuable player.

They're at the top of the league's scoring list, with Shaq a few tenths of a point ahead. On the defensive side, Bryant is second in steals, O'Neal ranks third in blocked shots.

The net effect is that their team is off to one of the best starts in the franchise's glorious history.

So who's more valuable?

Here's some food for thought.... Sorry, you probably can't take any more food this weekend.

OK, in the season of sharing, we present this idea: Why couldn't they share the MVP?

It has never happened before in the NBA, although the league has presented dual awards for rookie of the year three times (most recently when Elton Brand and Steve Francis won it for 1999-2000).

O'Neal entered the season pushing Kobe for MVP. Now it's looking like co-MVP.

It was fitting that they both scored 29 points on opening night. In the 11 games since, O'Neal has led the Lakers in scoring six times, Bryant five times.

How is Bryant supposed to win the MVP when O'Neal has been just as dominant as ever?

Then again, if Bryant already held the unofficial title of "best overall player in the league," what is he now that he's doing more things than ever to help his team win?

The 7.3 assists he averaged before Friday's game against Golden State are easily the most of his career. The fact that he's so willing and able to share the ball makes him even more of a threat.

"What I see is that he's willing to dedicate the first half of his game to his teammates," Laker Coach Phil Jackson said.

The fourth quarter can still belong to Kobe. Everything else is negotiable.

One play against Phoenix summarized the new Shaq-and-Kobe relationship. After a turnover, O'Neal had the ball with no one but Bryant between him and the basket. He passed ahead to Bryant, but then Bryant lobbed the ball back to O'Neal for an alley-oop. It was as if they were trying to see who could be more unselfish.

O'Neal seems resigned to the fact that he won't be the MVP. He has led the league in scoring before without winning it. He knows he'll never get enough credit for his improved passing and what that means to the Lakers. So he continues to run Kobe's campaign.

"I don't know what [the voters] look at, but the kid has it all," O'Neal said.

It was evident during the exhibition season that Bryant had evolved. He made everything look so easy. Now he's like the enlightened Keanu Reeves in "The Matrix," dodging bullets and blocking karate chops as if there's nothing to it.

"I've figured out how to simplify the game," Bryant said after one effortless exhibition.

Part of that is doing more with less.

Last year, Bryant took 88 more shots than O'Neal despite playing in six fewer games. That made no sense. Every shot Bryant took meant one less opportunity for the league's field-goal percentage leader, O'Neal.

This season order has been restored. O'Neal is taking more shots than Bryant, but Bryant has become more efficient.

The folks who said Bryant is more advanced than Michael Jordan was at this stage of his career failed to look at shooting percentage. In Jordan's first five full seasons (not counting his injury-shortened second year), Jordan shot below 50% only once. Bryant never made half of his shots--until now.

In Year Six, he's shooting 51%, including 50% from three-point range.

More than that, it's what he does when he isn't shooting.

"He's doing a good job of getting everybody involved," O'Neal said.

"He's just continuing to get better as a player," Derek Fisher said. "He's getting a much better understanding every month, every year about how to play on a basketball team where he's not necessarily the focal point. For him, coming out of school, he had never been in that situation. A lot of the expectations that we had for him made it hard for him to come in and grow up. In some ways it's fair, in some ways it's unfair. He's done an excellent job--definitely within the last year and a half--of trying to open himself up to the team, trying to make himself better, but also make the team better."

Bryant is settling into his role as one of the team's captains (along with O'Neal and Rick Fox). As much as it antagonized the Lakers last season, Bryant's willingness to speak out about O'Neal's poor conditioning and free-throw shooting was an important step. I like the way he called out Slava Medvedenko this preseason, challenging him to do more.

Bryant also realized that in order for his teammates to hear his voice, he actually has to talk to them.

He used to be isolated, but now, "He's a locker-room lawyer," Jackson said.

Now it's time to start presenting the arguments for MVP.

Allen Iverson has already presented a compelling case to earn a matching MVP for the award he won last season: The Philadelphia 76ers couldn't win without him and haven't lost with him.

But the 2001 NBA finals demonstrated that he wasn't enough to beat O'Neal and Bryant.

A championship combination. What's more valuable than that?

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com.

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