By Eric Neel
Page 2

We're just hours from the tip-off of another NBA season, and all anyone can think of (sorry, Detroit) is Shaq and Kobe, Kobe and Shaq. Seems like old times.

But things are different this time around. The young gun is riding solo out west, and the big man has trimmed down for a run at the east.

Kobe Bryant
Look for Kobe to be tied up by a lot more double-teams this season.

Most folks think they know how it'll go now. Everybody sees fireworks. Everybody predicts crazy numbers for Kobe now that Shaq's gone, MVP hardware for the Big Aristotle now that No. 8 isn't hogging the ball, and high-quality, cross-country smack thrown 'round most every night.

And maybe that's the way it will go. (The smack is a lock.) But the equations that matter aren't quite that simple. You've got to take into account physics, chemistry, seismology, global warming, the white hot light of fame and the burning embers of expectation. You've got to do the math.

SHAQ PLUS KOBE: Yeah, there was a lot of fussing and fighting. Yeah, they made Itchy and Scratchy look like UN diplomats by comparison. But you know what else? They won three titles. They made each other better. Like Dorothy and Jerry Maguire, they completed each other. Kobe extended the D. Shaquille passed out of the double. It was working. They added up. Think about that alley-oop Bryant floated up there in Game 7 against the Blazers back in 2000. That was some sweet addition by subtraction right there. That was a blueprint play. That was a model. A glimpse of what they were capable of. And in combination like that, nobody could stop 'em. Nobody but themselves.

KOBE MINUS SHAQ: Are the numbers going up? Maybe. But know this: Over the course of his career, Kobe is better, not worse, when Fu is on the floor. PPG (21.9), FG percentage (45.8), Rebounds (5.1), and Assists (4.4) are all a tick above his Shaqless stats. You can figure points and shots to jump in the brave new Big Daddyless World, but you can figure on a spike in the number of low post defenders willing to jump out, too. And you'd best get your abacus ready to count up some missed shots, and your calculator ready to run the dip in the field-goal percentage. Because in the old days, force equaled mass times acceleration; but in today's LA, force equals double-covered times trying-to-prove-a-point.

There is one number we know is going up, though -- going way up: The number of microphones and cameras pointing at Kobe's mug, looking for answers and explanations after every game.

SHAQ MINUS KOBE: Shaq minus Kobe is free of back-biting and down one ballhog. Shaq minus Kobe is, without question, The Man. Shaq minus Kobe is lean, mean, and ready to play payback every night as the sun goes down and his first-option-in-the-offense shots go up. That's the first few weeks, maybe even the first couple of months. That's Scary Shaq. But the season is long in the NBA, friends; long like an Oliver Stone film is long, long like a Scott Stapp rendition of "God Bless America" is long. And somewhere along the way the math is going to change. Somewhere, MVP is going to be replaced by IR and DNP.

Shaquille O'Neal
When Shaq's surrounded now, he doesn't have as sure-fire a shooter to kick it out to.

Shaq minus Kobe is going to equal Shaq plus one year older, minus one step slower, times two sore feet, divided by zero help on defense down low. (He's backed by Udonis Haslem and Malik Allen ... do not adjust your set, you read that right.). It's short one stone-cold spot-up perimeter shooter, and carrying an infinite number of opponents looking to sag, hack, and ride the big man's back. Shaq ain't quite Shaq anymore (the spirit is willing , but the body ... the body likes nights off nowadays), you see. Kobe covered that, covered it up. And D. Wade, good as he is, well, he ain't quite Kobe, now is he?

KOBE PLUS LUKE, THE NEW KAREEM, AND THE OLD HEAT: Conventional wisdom is this squad will be on the outside of the playoff party, looking in. Could be. But even if they don't make the playoffs, the chemistry here, or the lack of it, will be one of the most compelling stories of the season. The man who would be king is surrounded by multi-skill role players now. All of them can dish, and not a one of them is a slow, clock-eating, back-to-the-bucket post man. If the gang doesn't mind playing the part of the Vandellas to Kobe's Martha Reeves, and if he remembers to let them sing lead once in a while, it could be some wide-open fun.

On the other hand, if he does his Marques Haynes bit, just dribbling all over the room, and then goes it alone, this could be some how-the-mighty-have-fallen tragic theater. The real referendum on Kobe without Shaq won't be reckoned in his individual numbers. it'll come out in the lab report of how he combines with the elements around him now.

SHAQ PLUS D WADE AND THE NEW HEAT: This could really be something. I'm excited about this. You're excited about this. Shaq's excited. And Young Mister Wade is geeked out of his mind. It looks so good. The motivated superstar center looking to show he's not just the King, he's the Kingmaker. The modest, tireless, fearless slasher looking to take the next step after a brilliant playoff run last spring. The math here is easy: One plus one equals a three-seed in the East. Or does it? Shaq plus Dwyane equals two guys who want the middle. Wade is not a spot-up shooter; he's a creator, on the fly, in the paint, and along the baseline. I see traffic.

Plus, Wade wants to run. He needs the ball in transition. Shaq wants sets as slow as an afternoon canasta game on the patio. Where is D gonna be in those sets? Standing out on the perimeter, waiting for a kick-out, spotting up some rhythmless set shots that go clang in the night? (The kid was 30 percent from beyond the arc last season, and his J needs work.) That ain't something; that's next-to-nothing.

(SHAQ PLUS KOBE) MINUS PHIL: There were three personalities, three sources of strength and brilliance, three poles of pride, in Los Angeles. It was tempestuous, but there was a certain checks-and-balances feel about it. Rudy T circa 1994 might have been capable of going toe-to-toe with Kobe, but the eager-for-another-shot guy who walks the sidelines in LA now is head coach to only 11 of the 12 guys on the roster, if you know what I'm saying. And in Miami, well, in Miami, let's just say even if he were Jeff, Van Gundy would be a long way from being Shaq's equal. The key here isn't that either player will miss instruction or that his team will miss out on strategy. It's a gravitas thing.

Phil had it. He met them head on. And in key moments (at least until Detroit in the Finals), he saved them from themselves, from their peeves and petty instincts. He's gone now, and when the little ego monster starts whispering in each man's ear, there won't be any other voice strong and smart enough to talk him down or drown him out.

KOBE MINUS RINGS: This is what he wanted. His very own team. Will it be enough for him to make the club over in his image? Can he be happy knowing he's the center of Laker Universe ... even if Laker Universe is now some distant galaxy nowhere near the Championship Trophy Solar System? Don't count on it. Count on a brewing storm. Count on very public expressions of frustration, frequent bouts of finger pointing, and cries for someone to take Shaq's place.

Phil Jackson
Kobe and Shaq's new coaches just don't have the stature of Phil Jackson.

SHAQ MINUS PENNY: You forgot about this, didn't you? Kobe was looking like such the Svengali, and Shaq was so smooth in the role of the spurned superstar who just wanted to play "team ball," that you forgot we've been down this road before. Once upon a time in Florida, the big man was paired with a super-talented point. They were brothers in arms. They were headed for titles. But then the point got popular, maybe a little more popular than the big man. There was friction. Then somebody had to go. I'm not saying anything, I'm just saying there have been two significant intra-squad NBA feuds in the last 10 years, and Shaq's been at the heart of them both. Do the math, is what I'm saying. What happens when people find out how good Wade really is? What happens when Wade realizes how good he really is? How long do you think he'll defer to his aging co-star?

And we'll end where we began, with ...

SHAQ PLUS KOBE, PART TWO: There's no separating them. Even with the whole of North America between them, Fu and No. 8 are inextricably, permanently linked. Three rings will do that. So will a running squabble suitable for Springer. So one guy plays for the Heat and one guy still suits up for the Lakers. So what? They'll still be running numbers against each other. Watch it. Shaq will go off on Jersey on Wednesday night, and Kobe will take his numbers as a challenge for his night against the Jazz. And so it will go. All season long. The two of them laying down licks like Biggie and Tupac, like Cain and Abel.

And in a way, maybe it will be better, maybe it will add up to more fun for more fans. Because there'll be no smoothing it over now. Neither man will have to defer to the other for the good of the team for even one minute. It will have the feel of a great fight, now. It will resonate like Ali and Frazier. Everybody's playing for titles, of course, but this is the kind of thing that will define the era and energize the league. This is the kind of thing we won't be able to take our eyes off.

This is the big plus.

Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2.