Not that friction between the two big men is a government secret, of course. Shaquille O'Neal was the first big man drafted No. 1 overall by the Orlando Magic and the first to adopt a Superman persona. He's also made perfectly clear the notion of a "2.0" doesn't sit well with him, and well before another Orlando-based Superman decided to join the Lakers.
Thus, Shaq has taken many a shot at Dwight Howard over the years, the most recent coming last week during a TNT roundtable discussion for NBA.com. During the segment, Shaq claims that because Howard is more of a "pick-and-roll" center rather than one who "plays inside" (huh?) and O'Neal is "old school," he'd place back-to-the-basket centers Andrew Bynum and Brook Lopez ahead of Dwight.
OK, you wanna make an argument Bynum is better than Howard? Fine. I don't agree, but Drew's at least good enough to present a worthy, if ultimately losing, case. Brook Lopez, however, is nothing short of crazy talk. Asked for his reaction to Shaq's opinion, Howard treated the comments as such:
"I don't care what Shaq says. Shaq played the game. He's done. He's gone. It's time to move on. He hated the fact, you know, that when he played, the older guys were talking about him and how he played, and now he's doing the exact same thing. Just let it go. There's no sense for him to be talking trash at me. He did his thing in the league. He's one of the most dominant players that ever played the game. Just sit back and relax. You did your thing. Your time is up.
"I don't really care. I don't really care. He can say whatever he wanna say."
Dwight was equally dismissive of the idea of eventually getting on "the same page" as Shaq.
"What do we need to get on the same page for? I have respect for him and what he did for basketball. That's it. Like I said, he's already did his thing. He played. And when my time is up, there's gonna be somebody else who can do everything that I can do. Probably do it better. And instead of me talking about him, I'll do my job to try to help him get to where I'm at. I think that's what guys who've done it before us should do."
On a few levels, good for Dwight.
First, Howard's reaction reflects a newfound comfort level in his skin. During a recent ESPN "Sunday Conversation," Dwight admitted his initial reluctance to join the Los Angeles Lakers stemmed in large part from caring about what others said about following in O'Neal's footsteps. Eventually, Howard decided he just doesn't give a damn. The comparisons are inevitable anyway, so he might as well get what he wants. While this is an entirely new bit of Shaq-centric criticism, Howard's "whatever" reaction was a positive one.
Do I think the comments bothered the big man? Sure, but mostly over being dragged into the situation. It isn't the first time this has happened, nor will it be the last, and that has gotta be annoying. However, I bought Howard's indifference, if for no other reason than he knows fully well they stem from Shaq's insecurities and pettiness, rather than truth. Forget being better than Dwight. Brook Lopez isn't even the third best center in the league behind Howard and Bynum. Off the top of my head, Marc Gasol, DeMarcus Cousins, Roy Hibbert and Tyson Chandler are all definitely better than Robin's better half. Lopez is a very talented scorer, but that aside, provides almost nothing. He doesn't pass well. He doesn't defend well. His rebounding numbers are horrific for a 7-footer who plays big minutes near the basket. Brook is as one dimensional as players come, and he can't even hold a candle to Howard.
And Shaq knows this, by the way. He may be petty, but he ain't a dummy. I don't believe for a second he buys his own "back to the basket" rationale. He's simply looking to push Howard's buttons and court attention. Thankfully, Howard didn't take the bait.
Howard did, however, take the rock during a rather lively scrimmage. And upon receiving the ball, he proceeded to dunk it with a reasonable amount of force. A nice sign of the big man steadily returning to form, to be certain. But afterward, there was even more talk about the pass setting up the jam, a sweet interior touch pass from Pau Gasol. To a man, the Lakers were quite impressed by the Spaniard's skills on display. Mike Brown, who described Gasol as "Steve Nash in the paint," simply couldn't stop raving about the power forward.
"This guy, Pau, is probably on the level of [Arvydas] Sabonis, maybe," Brown said of Gasol's passing skills. "That touch pass that he made to Dwight. Are you kidding me? Forget making the pass. A lot of people who saw him make the pass, I guarantee at least half of us, including myself, didn't even think that Dwight was there and open. Now the pass gets to him, and that's Pau Gasol."
Brown later described Gasol is a "jack of all trades," capable of making jumpers, taking an opponent off the dribble, facilitating and rebounding. That versatility is obviously a strength, but also implies less rigidity in terms of what's expected from Pau. Given how confused Gasol often appeared by his role last season, I asked Brown about how to find the balance between utilizing those wide-ranging skills and providing clarity.
"He's too good for me to be specific with him," Brown insisted. "He may always guess. I don't know. He just does so much, I don't want to put a ceiling on him. There are certain guys where you say, I only want you shooting within 10 to 12 feet. I only want you doing this or doing that. Literally, Pau can play dribble hand-off and he can be the giver or the receiver. He can play pick-and-roll. He can be the screener. I put him in pick-and-roll [last season] with Andrew [Bynum] setting it. Pau can come off of a screen, catch-and-shoot, or make a play. So I don't want to put him in a box, and I don't want to, because he is so versatile.
"It's like having a quarterback like RGIII. He can pass. He can run. So he can play in that wildcat. He's smart. And he does everything at a high level. To me, you don't put those types of guys in a box. You let them play and you move them around. Moving them hopefully around in the different spots, he can help you out in a lot of different ways."
Plus, according to Kobe Bryant, this season offers a better setup for Gasol from square one.
"I think it's a matter of the system," Bryant explained. "You look at last year. We made calls. Run a play for me. Run a play for Andrew. Run a play for Pau. You know what I mean? It was tough to try to find that balance. In this type of system, you have ball movement, the defense kind of determines where the ball is going. You're just trying to get the easiest shot possible. It enables us to be decision-makers and play to our strengths."
And finally, there was a pleasant surprise. Steve Blake, who just last week was expected to miss approximately three weeks of training camp with a foot injury, was cleared for practice without any form of restrictions. I asked Brown how the point guard looked on the floor, and his coach insisted the veteran didn't skip a beat in his return.
"The kid's just tough as nails," Brown gushed. "I don't know if he'll ever get out of shape. He only knows one way to play, which is hard. And he's worked extremely hard on his game this summer. Watching him, you couldn't tell this was his first practice. He was Steve Blake."
Brown, on Nash's leadership and the team's pieces:
Kobe, on the team's chemistry:
Howard, on learning to lead: