Kobe Bryant has said he wants to test the free-agent market this summer, maybe try life as a big Jordan in a small pond.
Well, for the last five games, he has.
With Shaquille O’Neal planted on the bench, Bryant has been the man, throwing up dozens of shots off hundreds of dribbles, jacking, jabbing, juking.
And, oh yeah, losing.
Which, in the last seven years, is what happens nearly half the time when Bryant plays and O’Neal doesn’t.
The Lakers’ 1-4 slide might temporarily continue, but the debate is officially over.
There is nobody more important to this team than O’Neal.
If Bryant thinks he can win as many championships without him, he’s as loopy as some of those jump shots.
Bryant needs O’Neal more than O’Neal needs Bryant.
What few will acknowledge, statistics collected since the start of the 1996-97 season will prove.
In games featuring O’Neal but not Bryant, the Lakers are 36-8, an .818 winning percentage.
In games featuring Bryant but not O’Neal, the Lakers are 53-45, a .541 winning percentage.
Letter writers, start your keyboards.
While this is a Shaquille O’Neal team, it remains a Kobe Bryant town, the majority of folks typically embracing David while chiding Goliath.
Folks love Bryant’s effort and question O’Neal’s commitment. Folks think Bryant is exciting and O’Neal is exasperating.
There was even a letter in Saturday’s Times in which one fan actually wanted to -- gulp -- trade O’Neal.
To which the Lakers politely respond with please.
“You tell those people to come down to the court when Shaq is playing and say that,” Horace Grant said after Saturday’s practice. “This team is all about the big fella, and we’re kidding ourselves to say otherwise.”
O’Neal’s conditioning and work ethic cannot match Bryant’s.
In many ways, from his training camp money gripes to his recent unexcused absence from practice, O’Neal is a 7-foot pain.
But like it or not, he’s their pain, and recent events have proven again that the Lakers cannot win without him.
When he has played at least 24 minutes this season, the team is 19-7.
When he has played less, the team is 3-4.
“Shaq is the centerpiece of everything we do,” Derek Fisher said. “Nothing can change that fact.”
When O’Neal plays, Gary Payton is not griping, Devean George is not shrinking, the Denver Nuggets aren’t scoring 113 points and opponents aren’t posing after dunks.
When O’Neal plays, the defense has a safety net, the offense has a quarterback, even the smallest Laker can intimidate.
When O’Neal doesn’t play, Bryant can experience the freedom that he says he will pursue this summer as the best player on an average team.
It hasn’t been pretty.
Even with one future Hall of Famer by his side (Payton) and one calling the plays (Phil Jackson), Bryant hasn’t been able to save the Lakers during their current 1-4 stretch that has featured only 14 minutes from O’Neal.
During this time, Bryant has thrown up 111 shots, making only 50, in an offense that has featured lots of standing and watching.
“Jerry West and Elgin Baylor were tremendous players, but [the Lakers] didn’t win a championship until Wilt showed up,” Jackson said. “You cannot win without a big man.”
When looking around for future employers, this is something Bryant should not forget.
“Look what happened in Orlando with Penny Hardaway,” Grant said. “He wanted to leave Shaq. He wanted to be the man. So he left and what happened? Neither Orlando or Hardaway has been the same since.”
This issue should have long since been quelled, but it’s howling at the door again as the Lakers try to balance empathy for Bryant’s personal problems with irritation over his on-court persona.
After more than one-third of the season, Bryant has already taken 100 shots more than any other Laker, including 147 more shots than Gary Payton in one fewer game.
He has also missed more shots than anyone, as he ranks last among the Lakers’ five starters in shooting percentage.
In the past, a teammate would have already lashed out at him. But perhaps fear of being perceived as insensitive toward his personal nightmare has kept them quiet.
So, again, let’s allow the statistics to talk.
In seven years, with Bryant out of the lineup -- regardless of whether O’Neal was playing -- the team has won 79% of its games.
With O’Neal out of the lineup, the team has won 54% of its games.
Karl Malone has been just as important so far -- maybe even the team MVP -- but there’s a reason Malone and Payton came here.
It’s because of O’Neal. That is where the ring is found. They know it. Everyone in the NBA knows it.
But it can’t be unearthed without the help of everyone, including Bryant, which is why his teammates hope that when everyone returns from the injured list, everyone will have been reminded that even this group of superstars can only win as a team.
“It seems like every year at some point, we go away from the basics and principles that have made us so successful,” Fisher said. “It’s amazing how we keep hitting our head on the same wall.”
The impact of which still sounds like shaqkobe,
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Lakers’ record since 1996-97 with and without Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant:
Both play...311-119 .723
Neither play...1-2 .333
With Bryant, no O’Neal...53-45 .541
With O’Neal, no Bryant...36-8 .818
Source: The Elias Sports Bureau
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.