Ever since the Los Angeles Lakers traded Shaquille O'Neal to the Miami Heat in the summer of 2004 after eight seasons and three NBA championships, the Lakers have been little more than mediocre - or worse - with star guard Kobe Bryant going on almost nightly one-man scoring binges.
The latest outburst came Sunday, when Bryant, playing at Staples Center in Los Angeles against the Toronto Raptors, scored a career-high 81 points, the second most in NBA history, exceeded only by Wilt Chamberlain's legendary 100-point game for the Philadelphia Warriors against the New York Knicks in 1962.
Not only did Bryant's performance boost his league-leading scoring average, but it also bolstered the argument of those who believe that championship teams aren't built around players who take as many shots and score as many points as Bryant and some of the league's other top offensive stars.
"I think it's great for the league that you can have a player that can do that, but I hope it doesn't lose the focus on winning, and that seems to be getting lost a little bit and individual exploits are becoming more important," Paul Silas, a former NBA player and coach, said yesterday.
Silas, who was known for his tenacious rebounding while playing on two championship teams with the Boston Celtics and one with the Seattle SuperSonics during a 16-year career and coached for 10 years before getting fired by the Cleveland Cavaliers last season, said there was a far different mind-set when he was playing.
"Even when Wilt [Chamberlain] was scoring his 50 a game and that kind of thing, it didn't mean as much as [Bill] Russell winning titles," said Silas. "This [Bryant's performance] seems to override the fact that Detroit has only lost five games. That's more important than whether a guy can score 81 points."
The victory by the Lakers on Sunday raised their season's record to a modest 22-19, third in the Pacific Division and seventh in the Western Conference. The two other players in the league scoring more than 30 a game are Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers (20-20) and LeBron James of the Cavaliers (21-17).
Conversely, the teams with the best records do not revolve around one player.
The Detroit Pistons, who at 33-5 boast the league's best record, have the most balanced scoring among their starters. The reigning NBA champion San Antonio Spurs (31-10) are led by Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, who do more than just score, and a strong supporting cast.
"I still think that chemistry is what's most important," Silas said. "If you have chemistry to go along with talent, you have a possible championship scenario. With one guy being the focal point getting 40 or 50 or 80 points, it lessens the effect of the other players. And they feel that."
Yet some who belong to the same old school as Silas disagree.
Hall of Famer George Gervin, who won four scoring titles but no championships during his 14-year career spent mostly with the Spurs, said what Bryant and other big scorers do in piling up the points is simply a byproduct of the teams for which they play.
"A guy taking 46 shots [as Bryant did against Toronto, making 28], the team is pretty much designed around him," Gervin said. "Kobe has already won a championship, not leading the league in scoring, but more of a team concept. You can be critical and you can say he won't ever win another championship, but a lot of us haven't won a championship."
History hasn't been kind to the league's highest scorers.
In the modern era, Michael Jordan is a rarity, winning the scoring title in each of the six seasons in which he led the Chicago Bulls to an NBA championship. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it once with the Milwaukee Bucks and O'Neal once with the Lakers. Two of the league's pioneers, Joe Fulks and George Mikan (twice), also accomplished the feat.
Chamberlain, whose 30.1 career scoring average was later tied by Jordan for the highest in NBA history and who led the league in scoring a record seven straight times, won two rings. Each came during a season when Chamberlain averaged what, at the time, were career lows of 24.1 points (1966-67 with the 76ers) and 14.8 points (1971-72 with the Lakers).
Steve Kerr, who played with Jordan (and Scottie Pippen) on three NBA championship teams with the Bulls and two more with Duncan and David Robinson in San Antonio, said there is no correlation between winning championships and scoring titles.
"I think Kobe is one or two really good teammates away from being on a championship team again," said Kerr, now a television analyst and a minority owner of the Phoenix Suns. "He's still likely to score a bunch of points in that case, too."
Coupling Bryant's 81-point performance with a 152-149, double-overtime victory by the SuperSonics over the Suns Sunday night, Kerr called it "one of the best nights the NBA has seen in a long time. It was awesome to watch."
It was a throwback to the day when Gervin needed 59 points to overtake Denver's David Thompson for the league scoring title on the last day of the 1977-78 season. Thompson scored 73 for the Nuggets and Gervin scored 63 for the Spurs, including 33 in the second quarter.
It gave Gervin the first of three straight scoring titles. During that stretch, the Spurs twice reached the Eastern Conference finals. Would the legendary "Iceman" trade one or all of his scoring titles for a championship ring?
"It's unfair to say that it's all about winning. You think I didn't want to win a championship?" Gervin said. "I had four scoring titles. I'd give one of them up for a championship. But I wouldn't give up all four. Let's be realistic now."