Los Angeles Lakers: Dwight Howard
After all, he has played for -- and been cut by -- both teams in the past year, with the Lakers waiving him via the amnesty provision in July and the Knicks reaching a buyout agreement with the 34-year-old forward last month.
Known for his candor and unique brand of humor, it has been awhile since the L.A. media has had the pleasure of bantering with the 14-year veteran. The last time World Peace spoke to reporters in Los Angeles, last summer, he bluffed that he would rather play in China than return to the NBA, in hopes of scaring teams away from claiming him off waivers so he would be free to sign with his hometown Knicks.
When the Lakers made their lone annual trip to play the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in January, World Peace came down with a conveniently timed 24-hour sickness and avoided speaking to L.A. reporters while he was in the midst of 15 straight DNPs.
Well, World Peace certainly made up for lost time Monday. The former defensive player of the year was a guest on the "Max & Marcellus Show" on ESPNLA 710 Radio and spent close to two hours in studio (listen to the podcast of the show here).
The following are highlights from the conversation:
On Phil Jackson joining the Knicks as their new team president: "I’m sure he wanted to finish as a Laker. He’s been a champion with the Bulls and with the Lakers and then everybody forgot about his Bulls days, and I think he’s going to make everybody forget about his Lakers days."
On the Knicks' chances to rebound with Jackson at the helm: "Definitely, I could see him winning next year big and being a problem in the East. A major problem. Because he has the pieces already. The Knicks are going to be a major problem. With Phil there, it’s done. Everybody watch out in the East."
On being coached by Jackson in L.A.: "He would pick on me at practice. Get that spark plug back. I like how Phil uses the media to get at players, because sometimes if a player is doing something that’s destructive to the team that will never get out in the media, sometimes you have to push his buttons. Because there’s a lot of things that happen that media would never know about and it could affect the team indirectly."
On whether Jackson and the Knicks or the Buss family and the Lakers are better suited to win now: "Phil. He has 13 championship rings. The Lakers have 16 championship rings. Ten of those rings was under the Buss administration. So Phil has 13 rings. The balance is going toward him."
On whether he would have accepted a buyout in New York if he knew Jackson was going to be joining the front office: "Absolutely not."
On his time with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers: "I owe a lot of my career to Kobe. I got that ring."
On whether he would prefer to play in New York or L.A. next season: "I don’t think I can say anything right now because I don’t want to mess up my options. I might want to go to Milwaukee."
On the interest he received from teams such as the Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs last summer: "I want to coach one day. Why not go to San Antonio? I can learn under Pop [Gregg Popovich]."
On having run-ins with J.R. Smith in New York: "My whole thing was teaching J.R. to come back to bench with good body language, because it feeds off to the next person going into the game."
On Lakers rookie Ryan Kelly's potential: "He’s stronger than Kevin Durant was when he came in [the league] and can do basically the same things, but he has to start [training] now."
On his nickname for Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni: "Michelangelo."
On the Lakers' air-it-out meeting in Memphis last season: "Kobe was furious and he just wanted things to change, and him and Dwight [Howard] at the time wasn’t clicking. I think Dwight would take it too personal because Kobe is like very direct and Kobe gives you, like, a chance to show who you are. Not necessarily produce, but just to show who you are. Kobe wants to see you out there on the court, and he wants to see you like an attack dog. A smart attack dog. Show that you have heart. Show you care. He wants to see it right away."
On Howard's limitations as an offensive player: "That’s where I had an issue with Dwight sometimes because he’s strong and he can rebound, he can block shots, he can dunk. But his moves are not polished yet. So to want the ball every time we’re going to give it to you, because the franchise called for that, but he isn’t going to score."
On Pau Gasol: "He just looks like he’s breaking down, but I don’t think he is. He runs like he’s broken down, but I think he’s healthy."
On Minnesota Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman, who coached World Peace in Houston: "Adelman is amazing. He deserves a championship, absolutely. Because I played for him and he was one of those coaches where everything he said was right. Whatever he said, we would just do it and it worked. It was weird."
On returning to the city of Los Angeles after leaving the Knicks: "This year, I wanted to congratulate the females in L.A. They look amazing. When I came back, I was like, ‘Wow, something’s happened.’ I was only gone since September and they improved 100 percent."
While the NBA’s pre-draft camp in Chicago isn’t until May, and its player draft won’t take place until June 26 in New York, forgive L.A. fans if they’re perhaps counting down to those events more than investing in the 26 games left on the team’s regular season schedule.
In the first of those remaining 26 games, the Lakers face the league-best Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where Indiana is 26-3. The Lakers beat the Pacers in Indiana last season. But things were a little different then. Dwight Howard racked up 20 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks. Steve Nash chipped in 15 points and nine assists in perhaps his best game as a Laker and Metta World Peace (remember him?) added 19 points, seven rebounds and two steals.
Now Howard is in Houston, of course, and Nash, still sidelined with nerve irritation, isn’t walking through that door. In fact, the only active Lakers remaining from last year’s win in Indy are Robert Sacre (who played just three minutes in that game) and Jodie Meeks (who went 0-for-7 from the field).
Currently owners of the worst record in the Western Conference at 19-37, the Lakers are just behind Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Orlando and Boston in the “race” for the worst record in the NBA. And with 26 games left to play, a look at the schedule has essentially become a look ahead to how many games they might lose, and to where that total might put them in the upcoming draft.
Tuesday’s game against the Pacers is the first half of a back-to-back for L.A., followed by Wednesday in Memphis. It’s the first of a brutal string of seven back-to-backs the Lakers face to close out the season.
What’s more, 17 of the Lakers’ 26 remaining games come against teams with a .500 record or better, including three games against San Antonio (two on the road), two against Oklahoma City, two against the L.A. Clippers, two against Portland and one against Houston. Those last five are, you may have noticed, the top five teams in the Western Conference.
Mike D'Antoni and Lakers assistant coach Kurt Rambis have noticed.
"I came into work about two weeks ago and Kurt goes, 'You know who has the hardest schedule left?' I go, 'No. Who would that be?'," D'Antoni related after shootaround on Tuesday.
"'The Lakers,'" Rambis told him.
"'Oh good. That's good news,'" D'Antoni said sarcastically. "I guess it hasn't changed any."
There has been a lot of talk about “tanking” this season, an idea the Lakers organization has rejected at every turn. But beyond the injuries the team still faces, and the revolving door of players they have had to incorporate throughout the season, the quality of their opponents is the biggest reason wins will be difficult to come by down the stretch.
They may not be easy to watch, but the games left on the schedule may put the team in a decent position come draft night.
While nobody in L.A. was happy to see Steve Blake go at the trade deadline, the Lakers were able to save $4 million in the deal and may have found a keeper or two in Bazemore and Brooks in their trade with Golden State. After joining the Lakers for a shootaround before playing in their first game, the former Warriors combined for 18 fourth-quarter points against the Celtics, with Bazemore finishing with a career-high 15 points and Brooks scoring a season-high 14 on 7-for-11 shooting with three steals.
As bad as the Lakers have been this season, most of their struggles have come because of injuries (despite what coach Mike D'Antoni's lack of popularity in L.A. would suggest). It was no coincidence the Lakers finally ended their eight-game home losing streak with a 101-92 win over the Celtics thanks in large part to Gasol's 16 points and seven rebounds in his first game back from a right groin strain, and also the return of Meeks, who has led the team in scoring (17.5 points per game) in the two games he played since recovering from a sprained right ankle.
Lakers stay conservative at the trade deadline:
Leading up the trade deadline it seemed as if Gasol, Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman would all be on their way out of town if there were draft picks to be had and luxury-tax relief attached to the deal. Instead, the Lakers chose to stand pat after the Blake deal, setting up what is sure to be an offseason flush with activity.
Dwight Howard makes his triumphant return to Staples Center:
Lakers fans tried to take out their frustrations for the last year and a half of the franchise's struggles by chanting "Dwight Sucks!" when Howard and the Houston Rockets played at Staples Center against the Lakers for the first time since the All-Star center left L.A. in the offseason. Howard just laughed in their face, mocking the jeer by joining in himself, at the end of a night when he put up 20 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks on the way to a 134-108 win for his new team.
Another setback for Kobe Bryant:
The chances of Bryant making a return to the court sometime during the 2013-14 season are becoming slim. One day after Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said, "We're not going to push him to get back," Bryant was examined by Lakers physician Steve Lombardo and it was determined the star guard would miss at least three more weeks because of pain and swelling in his left knee before being re-evaluated. Of course at that point, Bryant would likely need another week or two of practice and conditioning before he would play in a game. If that's the case, there would be about only a dozen games left -- if that -- in the season for Bryant to return to.
LOS ANGELES -- The night started off with a raucous round of boos by the Los Angeles Lakers home crowd determined to let Dwight Howard hear it for his decision to skip town.
It ended with the hushed tones of fans' feet shuffling up the stairs, heading to the exits early after seeing their team lose for the 23rd time in the last 28 games overall, including eight straight at Staples Center -- an all-time low for the franchise.
Howard did his damage early, collecting eight of his 20 points in the first quarter -- six of them coming off three rim-rattling dunks -- as well as six of his 13 rebounds as the Rockets built a 10-point lead.
What was left of the crowd late in the fourth quarter started a "Howard sucks!" chant, but the former three-time defensive player of the year thwarted its effectiveness as if he were swatting away a weak layup attempt, mockingly joining in the heckle as teammates Chandler Parsons and Patrick Beverley chuckled in delight.
If the boos didn't have any effect on Howard, they did even less to James Harden, who had what's becoming a typical line for him against the Lakers -- 29 points, 11 assists and six rebounds.
How it happened: The Rockets dominated from start to finish, leading by as many as 36 points at one point en route to their eighth straight win.
What it means: Howard's return to L.A. was overshadowed by the Lakers entering into the final 24 hours before Thursday's noon PT trade deadline and shipping Steve Blake to the Golden State Warriors shortly before tip-off. Lakers fans are finished obsessing over last season's disappointment or fretting over this season's failures. It's all about the future now and what subsequent moves could be in store for Thursday.
Hits: Wesley Johnson scored 24 points on 9-for-13 shooting, marking the sixth time in his last seven games that he has scored 15 points or more.
In his first game back from a right ankle sprain, Jodie Meeks scored 19 points on 7-for-14 shooting.
Kendall Marshall had 20 points and 16 assists.
Misses: The Lakers had 20 turnovers leading to 26 points for the Rockets.
L.A. allowed Houston to shoot 18-for-35 from 3 (51.4 percent).
Stat of the game: 40. That's how many points Houston scored in the third quarter to break the game wide open.
Up next: The Lakers host the Boston Celtics on Friday in their first game after the trade deadline. Time will tell what the team looks like then.
HOUSTON -- Maybe there was a reason the NBA decided to change its national broadcast schedule to yank Wednesday's Los Angeles Lakers versus Houston Rockets game from airways around the country.
After all, Nick Young already said the postgame locker room in Dallas following a 13-point loss Tuesday -- the Lakers' eighth in nine games -- felt like "a funeral."
Appropriate then that Kobe Bryant was wearing all black on the end of the Lakers bench at the Toyota Center. Right?
At some point L.A. will officially mourn the hope it had for success this season.
That day has not come yet, with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak telling ESPNLosAngeles.com before the Rockets game that, "I haven't sensed that players have thrown in the towel, and they won't ... They have too much at stake."
Maybe the Lakers haven't given up hope yet, but the league was right to give up on showcasing the second "reunion" game between the Lakers and Dwight Howard's Rockets this season, especially after a few mind-numbing minutes in the fourth quarter that reduced the game to a parade of Howard missed free throw attempts.
Hack-a-Howard might have worked the first time L.A. beat the Rockets in Houston this season, but when the Lakers started the strategy when they were already down more than a dozen points in the final minutes it seemed more petty than savvy this time around.
How it happened: The Lakers took a five-point lead into halftime thanks to strong starts from Pau Gasol (15 of his 21 points in the first two quarters) and Nick Young (15 of his 25 points), but the wheels came off in the third quarter when L.A. was outscored 33-15 and Houston controlled it from there, even with the Hack-a-Howard spectacle in the fourth.
What it means: The Lakers have now lost nine of their past 10 games by an average of 13.9 points, and eight of their next nine games are on the road. Is there any relief in sight?
Hits: Jodie Meeks scored 21 points.
Jordan Hill had 10 points and eight rebounds off the bench.
Chris Kaman broke a string of four straight DNP-CDs to put in five points and five rebounds off the bench.
Misses: Kendall Marshall had his worst game since joining the starting lineup, shooting just 2-for-13 from the field en route to five points and eight assists.
Howard shot 10-for-24 from the free throw line.
Stat of the game: 18. That's how many turnovers the Lakers had leading to 26 points for the Rockets. Seven of those turnovers came in the decisive third quarter.
Up next: The Lakers will have an off day Thursday coming off the back-to-back in Dallas and Houston and then play a "road" game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday in their first matchup against the Clips since that surprising blowout win on opening night.
What was once a circle-the-calendar type of night, with Dwight Howard playing one of four reunion games against his former team, will now only be carried by local affiliates.
"I think they’re doing business and you can’t blame them," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said Friday. "It’s our job now to make them go, ‘Man, we messed that up.’ Everybody has to do their business. Our job is to make it to where we’re a good team. Obviously we haven’t showed that yet but we’re working at it."
D'Antoni was asked if it was "odd" to see the Lakers, one of the league's glamour franchises, bumped from the airways.
"It’s kind of odd that we’re three games under .500 too, so I think it kind of coincides together and we don’t have Kobe [Bryant]," D'Antoni said. "I think it kind of fits in together."
The Lakers host the Rockets on Feb. 19 in Howard's first time returning to Staples Center to face the purple and gold and also his first time, presumably, going up against Bryant (if he's healthy by then) since choosing Houston during free agency during the offseason. That game will be aired nationally on ESPN.
Coming into the 2013-14 season the Lakers had 25 national TV appearances scheduled (five on ABC, 10 on ESPN, 10 on TNT), tying them with the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks for most in the league.
This isn't the first time the strength of the Lakers' brand was tested this season. Back in November the team's sellout streak was snapped at 320 games.
In the lead-up to Thursday's game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets, however, all the focus was about a single player, Dwight Howard, and not the teams involved.
And then the game happened and Steve Blake, the Lakers' eighth-leading scorer through the first five games, was the guy to play the hero, hitting a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of Howard with 1.3 seconds left to lift L.A. to the thrilling 99-98 victory.
Hoops is just a funny game that way. Sure, everyone will remember LeBron James' consecutive Finals MVPs from the past two years when they talk about his career long after he's retired, but Mike Miller was the star of Miami's clinching game in 2012 and Shane Battier couldn't miss from 3 in Game 7 of the Finals in 2013.
Great players are considered great for a reason. On any given night they can take over and carry the rest of their guys, but what turns a collection of players into a unbreakable unit is when those other guys carry the great players every once in a while.
And when you rely too much on one player? He can let you down. The Lakers learned that lesson last season when they had what Mike D'Antoni described as an All-Star lineup and about as much cohesion as the real All-Star teams have when they're slapped together for a weekend every February.
The Rockets, the team considered loaded with talent compared to L.A.'s ragamuffin roster, learned it in the loss. Howard isn't actually Superman. Put him on the free throw line, where he went 5-of-12 in the fourth quarter when D'Antoni resorted to Hack-a-Howard.
On a night that was built up to be about the Lakers seeking revenge against Howard for leaving their franchise in the dust or about Howard seeking justification for his decision, it was L.A.'s team performance that was the story.
After storming into Houston, shutting down Dwight Howard for most of the game, making virtually every 3-point shot they took for half of the game and spreading the ball around enough to put six players in double figures, the wheels came off in the fourth.
James Harden scored seven of his 35 points and the Lakers were shooting just 5-for-21 in the final frame, turning a four-point lead after three into a two-point deficit with 3.4 seconds left when Jodie Meeks inbounded it to Blake on the left wing. Blake immediately let it fly from 3 over the outstretched arms of, appropriately, Howard, and the Lakers won the game.
At times the game was as ugly as a Howard free throw (he went 5-for-16 from the line, by the way), but the Lakers were able to find a way to pull out their first road win of the season against Howard and a good team in the Rockets.
How it happened: Just like in the San Antonio game (which they lost) and the Atlanta game (which they won), the Lakers got up big in the first half by 19 points but let the lead disappear. And just like at Golden State and in Dallas, the Lakers looked dead in the water in the fourth quarter on the road. But this time, L.A. found a way to win.
What it means: The Lakers proved they have it in them to come back down the stretch, despite not having a true superstar to turn to, what with Kobe Bryant sidelined.
Hits: Blake, the hero of the night, finished with 14 points on 4-for-6 shooting from 3.
Meeks kept up his resurgent season, scoring 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting, including 5-for-7 from 3.
Meeks contributed to the Lakers' bench getting it done again, as the reserves scored 54 of the Lakers' 99 points.
Howard struggled mightily against his former teammates, scoring just 15 points on 5-for-10 shooting and he even scored a bucket for L.A. while battling Wesley Johnson for a rebound. He did have 14 rebounds.
Misses: Xavier Henry came into the game as L.A.'s second-leading scorer averaging 12.4 points. Not only did he lose his stating role to Nick Young, he lost his mojo, going 1-for-5 from the field for three points to go with three fouls and a bonehead play or two (not protecting the ball and getting stripped at halfcourt by Harden comes to mind).
Pau Gasol had just two points on 1-for-10 shooting.
Stat of the game: 11-for-14 (78.6 percent). That's what the Lakers shot from 3 in the first half, accounting for more than half of their 64 points and causing Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey to send out this very self-aware (and humorous) tweet: "My analytics say that if they shoot 80% on 3 point shots we will not win."
Up next: L.A. closes out its three-game trip on the second night of a back-to-back in New Orleans on Friday.
But reunions have a funny way of forcing you to deal with old emotions and lingering issues.
So for one night at least, Dwight Howard and the Lakers will go back to talking about all of the things they grew tired of talking about last season. All of the chemistry issues the best team money could buy never resolved. All of the "what ifs" and "why nots" that everyone involved just has to live with and learn from now.
Could things have been different? Was there anything anyone could have done to change the outcome?
Howard was in Los Angeles earlier this week to play the Los Angeles Clippers, returning to Staples Center for the first time since his season came to a frustrating, tearful end when the Lakers were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. A season that had begun with championship aspirations, a season in which Howard consistently battled pain and injury (he had preseason back surgery and suffered a torn labrum midway through the season), had ended in crushing disappointment and inevitable regret.
Now, his Houston Rockets host the Lakers for the first time since he decided to leave.
When the Lakers made their previous trip to Houston, in early January, Howard was just two days removed from suffering the torn labrum. He watched from the bench and saw the Rockets erase a 14-point first-quarter deficit en route to a 125-112 runaway victory.
He saw James Harden come out on top of the individual matchup with Kobe Bryant, dropping 31 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds on 11-for-19 shooting to Bryant's 20, 7 and 5 on 8-for-22.
He saw 6-foot-9, 24-year-old Chandler Parsons fill up the stat sheet with 20 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, a block and a steal.
He saw Jeremy Lin excite the crowd with his boundless energy and joy for the game.
And he saw Kevin McHale, one of the best big men of all time, on the sideline presiding over it all.
There were his future teammates. There was his future coach. You have to wonder, did Howard know right then and there where he wanted to be? When he heard Steve Nash tell reporters after the game, "I definitely don't think there's a guarantee" that the Lakers would ever get it together with the group they had, did he silently nod his head in agreement?
The Lakers brought Mike D'Antoni, Bryant and Nash to their pitch meeting to try to keep Howard in L.A., but they did not connect, and he chose to leave for Houston and a four-year, $88 million contract.
Howard hasn’t spoken to most of his former teammates since choosing Houston, telling reporters this week that the Lakers he still talks to are Jodie Meeks, Jordan Hill and Robert Sacre.
"I wanted him to come back," Meeks said. "He was a great teammate, but at the end of the day, I didn't want him to come back if he wasn't going to be happy. I wanted it to be good for both parties. He's where he wants to be."
Limited by injuries and unsettled in his role in the Lakers' offense, Howard often seemed uncomfortable in L.A. and sometimes pressed to be thought of as the franchise centerpiece. When Lakers security personnel carried Bryant’s bags on road trips, for example, Howard would demand the same treatment, as if he envied the longtime star’s status.
On practice days, Howard had his driver keep the engine running on his blue Maybach outside the team facility in El Segundo, as if he had somewhere else to be. "There's probably a hole in the ozone layer right above El Segundo because of him," one source said.
"It got a little bit sideways, I think, for everybody," D'Antoni said. "Not saying who's at fault, who isn't. I don't think he was completely healthy and there was a lot of pressure on them. Right from the beginning, they thought championship or bust, and he wasn't healthy. Now all of the sudden, starting in the preseason, you lose eight preseason games, you go 1-3 at the first [games of the regular season] and now it's like, 'Oh, shoot.'
"For everybody concerned, nobody left it just to mature into what it should have been and it never got there -- for all kinds of reasons. It's too bad. He's obviously a great player, but now, let's turn the page and let's go on. No use crying over spilled milk, it just happens."
On Thursday, an injured Bryant will have the courtside seat. You have to wonder, will he watch Howard and Harden lead the Rockets and think of what might have been?
DALLAS -- The rims in the American Airlines Center have microphones attached to them with the volume turned up to ungodly levels to accentuate every "THWACK" of a swish or "THUNK" of a miss, with the sounds echoing through the arena.
Let's just say there were a lot of thunks for the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday as L.A. shot just 44.3 percent en route to a 19-point blowout loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
Enough to maybe hear the clanks some 1,400 miles away back in Hollywood. Enough to leave Lakers fans silent with their own thoughts after a relatively promising 2-2 start to the season was erased by a real clunker.
But the even worse effort was on defense. The Lakers let Dallas run all over them as the Mavs shot 52.1 percent from the field, hit 13 3-pointers and Monta Ellis dropped in a game-high 30 points himself.
There has been so much talk in recent days about how the Lakers would balance out their 11-man rotation to have a potent offensive team on the floor, but Tuesday was a stark reminder that none of that matters if L.A. can't find a way to defend.
How it happened: The Lakers fell behind by as many as 20 points in the first half as they were completely controlled on the boards (a 29-19 Dallas rebounding edge, including seven on the offensive glass) and went to the locker room down 67-48. It got worse from there. The Mavs pushed the lead to 30 in the third and while L.A. went on a minor 17-4 run to end the quarter, it was never a game in the fourth.
What it means: The road blues are back for the purple and gold. After starting last season 1-5 on the road and the season before that 1-7, the Lakers have a new look this season but the same old problems stumbling out of the gate away from Staples Center. Not only have they lost both those games, but both were embarrassments with the Golden State Warriors winning by 31 and the Mavs winning by 19. There was already going to be enough pressure on the Lakers to win their home games while Kobe Bryant was out to keep their head above water, but if they can't even show up with competitive efforts on the road they'll be in big trouble real quick.
Hits: Nick Young, who boldly proclaimed he was going for NBA Sixth Man of the Year after losing his starting role to Xavier Henry over the weekend, led L.A. with 21 points on 8-for-12 shooting off the bench.
Misses: Henry scored only five points on 2-for-8 shooting.
There were a lot of misses, frankly. Henry can't be singled out as the only one responsible.
Stat of the game: 72-32. The amount the Lakers' starters were outscored by their bench.
Up next: It's Dwight Howard time. The Lakers finish up their three-game trip with a back-to-back against Howard and the Houston Rockets on Thursday and the New Orleans Pelicans and their frightening mascot on Friday.
Dwight Howard is way too good of a basketball player to suggest that some sort of addition by subtraction might happen with the Los Angeles Lakers now that he's in Houston. He was hurt all of last season and never felt comfortable with the organization or his teammates. But it really hasn't been that long since he was a defensive monster and legitimate MVP candidate. So stop that clichéd addition-by-subtraction talk. You don't just lose a talent like that and not feel it.
There is, though, something to the notion that the Lakers will be better in some areas without him. Pau Gasol, as you can already see from his limited preseason action, is going to start looking a lot more like the guy who won two NBA titles with the Lakers, and not the miscast stretch-forward who was forcibly demoted as a focal point of the offense to accommodate Andrew Bynum and then Howard.
And Chris Kaman, the Lakers' unheralded consolation prize after losing Howard in free agency, might be the key to it all.
Yes, you read that correctly. Kaman might be the key to it all. Because what Kaman embodies is exactly the way the Lakers will be different this season without Howard.
They won't be as fast or quick or talented. But they will be more flexible. They will do things they may not want to do, and play roles they're not accustomed to.
Kaman isn't the perfect fit for a system like D'Antoni's by any stretch of the imagination. He's neither explosive nor exciting. Howard was supposed to be the bigger, badder version of the Phoenix-era Amar'e Stoudemire. A guy like Kaman would presumably be the last person you'd cast to play in an up-tempo, high-scoring attack like the one D'Antoni's teams normally use. But you know what? He's willing to try it. Heck, he's eager to try it.
"I'm flexible," Kaman said after scoring 12 points and grabbing seven rebounds in the Lakers' 90-88 exhibition win over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night at Citizens Business Bank Arena. "I can post up. I can shoot the ball. I can set a ball screen. I can pass the ball. I have good, well-rounded basketball knowledge and skills. I'm not like a superstar, but I'd like to think I do a decent job out there."
"I think that's a good indication of how much liberty and how much my teammates also trust me to make plays and make shots and then, when the defense collapses, find them," Gasol said after the game.
It was also a far cry from last season, when he was often positioned at the elbow to create space for Howard, while Bryant was left cajoling Gasol to buck the system for his own benefit.
"He tells me to run to the post, take [position] and screw everything else," Gasol said last season, sharing Bryant's message to him.
Now, it's sanctioned by coach Mike D'Antoni, too.
"I don't want to run to it all the time, but a good portion of the game, I want to be able to operate from that position and make plays," Gasol said.
Even Nick Young, who hardly ever sees a shot he doesn't take (he has had 25 shot attempts in 45 minutes through the first two preseason games), knows that getting Gasol involved is part of the plan.
"Of course, we got to feed that big man, Pau," Young said. "Let him go to work."
Steve Nash, who should have the ball in his hands more this season deciding where it will go, spoke about the importance of going to Gasol.
"He’s going to be very central to what we do," Nash said. "He’s somebody that we want to run the offense through a lot -- get him in pick-and-rolls, get him on the post, get him on the elbow -- and have him involved and be a threat as much as possible."
“We were stacked and it was an epic failure,” said Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist and Lakers super fan, Flea, in a recent podcast with LandOLakers.com. “For me, it was the most disappointing Lakers season of all time and not even close to any other season.”
I know what that life’s all about, having grown up as a Philadelphia sports fan. Losing and frustration and disappointment come with the territory.
If I went into every season with a championship-or-bust mentality as a fan, I would have given up watching sports a long time ago and probably would be really into cooking shows and have some random additional skill, like being able to play the piano.
But, I kept watching and I keep watching. And even though there’s been only one Philadelphia championship in my lifetime (the 2008 Phillies) and I have that Jerry West in me where I hate to lose more than I love to win, I have conditioned myself to still be able to find enjoyment as a fan in a season, even if there is no ring at the end.
Now, the Lakers have 16 championships in their history, compared to just five for the three major pro sports teams in Philly (three for the 76ers, two for the Phillies and zero Super Bowl wins for the Eagles I’m not an ice hockey guy). So that fact alone might naturally lower my expectations. But is being a Lakers fan all about rooting for rings and nothing else?
What if those expectations were removed? What if you forgot about the history for a second and, instead of focusing solely on the team’s quest for No. 17 or Kobe Bryant’s fight for No. 6, you took in each game for what it is? What if a loss in January wasn’t a referendum on how the team could potentially perform in June, but rather something the team could learn from in February?
Take my Eagles, for instance. Have you seen them under Chip Kelly? I came into this season thinking that an 8-8 record would be pretty much their ceiling after a dreadful 4-12 mark last season. Two weeks into it and they’re 1-1, so that’s right in step with my instincts. But there is nothing mediocre or ho-hum about how they got to 1-1. If I wanted to view everything in the specter of their Super Bowl chances, then I could focus on how they almost let a 26-point lead disappear against Washington and how they were 7.5-point favorites at Lincoln Financial Field in Week 2 and lost to San Diego.
But if I forget about Lombardi for a second, I can appreciate what’s going on here. Back-to-back 30-point games? Last season, the Eagles scored 30 or more in just one game all season -- a 38-33 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. LeSean McCoy putting up 184 running yards in Week 1, Michael Vick collecting 428 passing yards in Week 2 and DeSean Jackson hauling in 297 receiving yards over two games? This is silly stuff. And wildly entertaining. And all I could ask for as a fan.
So, how about it, Lakers fans? What if Mike D’Antoni gets these guys to reach the 110-115 points per game that he promised at his introductory news conference? What if there is chemistry and growth and a few upsets along the way -- both from the Lakers beating a team or two that are better than them and falling to a few inferior opponents?
The knee-jerk reaction from some of you I’m sure will be, “Well, we had ‘Showtime’ already AND we won.” And you’d be right on both counts. But even though this season’s Lakers will be wearing the same purple and gold uniforms as those teams from the 1980s, everything else has changed in the NBA they’ll be competing in. You can still honor the past without making it an unrealistic standard you hold the present to. Plus, it’s all about context. Comparing this aging Bryant/Steve Nash/Pau Gasol-led team to Magic Johnson/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/James Worthy in their prime isn’t a fair fight. But comparing it to the squad that had an injured, unhappy Dwight Howard on it last season? Or to the team that slogged up and down the court under Brown? It would have to be better than that, right?
I called up Paul Coro, who covers the Phoenix Suns for the Arizona Republic and got on the beat one month after D’Antoni got the job as head coach of the Suns. How did Phoenix fans accept the 7 Seconds or Less era?
“When he took over the team, [there] was kind of free rein because there wasn’t any expectations,” Coro said. “Everything about it was great. They were winning beyond anybody’s imagination. They were doing it in a way that was innovative and thoroughly entertaining. It just blew people away how much fun it was. Immediately, they had big crowds -- sellouts early in the season. I think they ended up starting a sellout streak that carried on for a few years. It was nothing for them to be up in the 110-120 [point range].”
Albeit the Suns have never won it all, having lost to the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 Finals and to the Boston Celtics in 1976, so you could say that they never knew what it was like to root for a championship team like L.A. The point is, though, that those D'Antoni Suns teams were worth it for the fans. They were memorable. They were thrilling. They were fun.
A healthy Bryant, Nash and Gasol, with additional playmaking from guys like Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, Wes Johnson and Steve Blake, plus Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman playing big down low and Jodie Meeks and Ryan Kelly or Shawne Williams spreading the floor outside can be fun, too.
I'm excited about watching the next Eagles game. Do I think this will be the best season ever for the Birds? Nope. But they could surprise me. It's a nice feeling.
Wouldn't it be nice to feel that way about the Lakers again?
Will the Lakers make the playoffs this season?
It’s a key question of the offseason, but it’s one usually answered with more questions. Is Kobe Bryant healthy? Is he the same Kobe? Are Pau Gasol and Steve Nash actually on the floor? Is Phil Jackson involved somehow?
With so many unknowns, the consensus has been that the Lakers will miss out on the postseason this year. In a recent ESPN.com panel, the Lakers were not only pegged to miss the playoffs, but were ranked 12th in the Western Conference.
It seems a little unsettling -- particularly to Kobe -- if only because the shift from known entity to wildcard happened so quickly. While it’s difficult to predict where a team with so many question marks will finish, we can look at the precedent set by teams of a similar makeup and style.
Healthy or not, maybe the only thing that’s safe to assume right now is that the Lakers will be a below average defensive team.
The first (and biggest) reason for that is the loss of Dwight Howard. Although he was far from the one-man defensive anchor he was in his Orlando days, Howard still had a positive impact defensively last season, as the Lakers allowed 5 more points per 100 possessions when Howard was off the floor than they did when he was on the floor. Last year was a poor defensive effort by Howard’s standards, but it was still among the league’s best.
Maybe losing a great defensive player could be overcome on its own, but let’s not forget that the Lakers ranked 20th in defensive efficiency last season with Howard. It’s also tough to ignore that Mike D’Antoni has only coached one above-average defensive team (better than 15th in defensive efficiency) in ten seasons, or that Pau Gasol and Steve Nash are both now a year older. New additions Nick Young and Chris Kaman aren’t exactly renowned for their defensive prowess, either.
Add all that up, and it would be somewhat of a miracle for the Lakers to finish above 15th in defensive efficiency this season. Assuming that miracle doesn’t happen, where does that leave the Purple and Gold?
A look at the offensive and defensive efficiency marks for the playoff teams of the last decade is a good starting point.
After two and a half solid seasons in Philadelphia, where Meeks established himself as a valued contributor on playoff teams, the sweet-shooting guard signed with L.A. at a discount with the hopes of winning a ring.
While he witnessed his teammates go down left and right with injuries as the season wore on, Meeks fortunately avoided any health problems. With Kobe Bryant out with a torn Achilles tendon, it was Meeks who was on the court at shooting guard in Bryant's place in the regular-season finale against the Houston Rockets, driving baseline and throwing down a game-sealing dunk in overtime to secure L.A. the seventh seed in the postseason.
But whoever was holding the purple and gold Voodoo doll spared Meeks only for so long. He suffered a third-degree sprain in his left ankle in the Lakers' opening playoff loss to the San Antonio Spurs, ending his season three games sooner than his team did after the Lakers' decimated roster was swept by the Spurs.
"It was really bad timing," Meeks told ESPNLosAngeles.com in a phone interview from his offseason home in Atlanta on Monday. "I was very frustrated just because, selfishly, I was like, ‘Man, I can get as many shots as I want now and I can’t even play.’
"I felt like it was a good opportunity for me to kind of showcase what I could do on a more productive level because the guys were hurt."
As this upcoming season approaches, all Meeks wants is that opportunity again.