Los Angeles Lakers: Shaquille O'Neal
Dwight Howard chose to go far, far away from Bryant, but Shaquille O'Neal has come back around to offer his full support to his former teammate.
"Kobe's a tough competitor," O'Neal said on a conference call Wednesday to promote his involvement in Adam Sandler's new movie, "Grown Ups 2," which opens in theaters Friday. "He loves when everyone doubts him. Of course at (almost) 35, they're saying he's done, but Kobe will show the world that he can play at a high level until he's 40. I know with the rehab, he's probably only supposed to do it once a day. I know for a fact he's doing it twice, if not three times a day. He tells everybody he's coming back in December, but if he could, he would like to be ready at the start of the season. That's how much he's going to push this thing to try to get to 100 percent."
O'Neal's praise of Bryant carries even more weight when you consider that it was a torn Achilles that ended O'Neal's career in 2011, when he was a 39-year-old playing in his 19th season as a member of the Boston Celtics.
"It was a career-ending injury," O'Neal said. "There should have been one more year left on the deal, but I was like, 'Nah, I'm older.' I was always used to dominating and playing at a high level. When I was with the Celtics, it was more of like a reserve role and I really wasn't comfortable with that. I didn't want to be in anybody's way and I just wanted to give somebody else a chance -- like a young guy, if they wanted to sign anybody else."
Why didn't O'Neal persevere through the injury and try to give it one last try to extend his career, the way that Bryant is dubbing his comeback "The Last Chapter"?
"Basically, I was just tired," O'Neal said. "I didn’t want to do rehab. I didn't want to fight to come back and all that."
Howard was expected to follow the Lakers’ Hall of Fame lineage of centers but decided to leave L.A. less than a year after joining the team to sign with the Houston Rockets last week.
The two living legends in Howard’s old avatar, which he immediately changed after committing to Houston, have not taken the news well.
On Monday, Abdul-Jabbar chimed in on Twitter and Facebook and wrote, “Dwight Howard is a perfect example of the fact that ‘potential has a shelf life.’ Laker fans should be patient and allow Mitch & company to prepare themselves to do some serious work in the free agent market.”
O’Neal, while speaking at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday, said he wasn’t surprised by Howard’s decision to take less money to leave Los Angeles for a smaller market.
"It was expected," O’Neal said. "We've all been in L.A., and not a whole lot of people can handle being under the bright lights. Everybody wants to do it, but when you get there, there are certain pressures. I think it was a safe move for him to go to a little town like Houston. That's right, little town. I said it."
Both O’Neal and Abdul-Jabbar were critical of Howard even before he decided to leave the Lakers.
Abdul-Jabbar told the San Francisco Chronicle last month he met Howard only once and that Howard expressed an interest in learning from the former Lakers captain but he never again reached out to Abdul-Jabbar. “He's charming, he's charismatic, very nice young man,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Maturity-wise, he doesn't get it."
When Abdul-Jabbar was asked about teaching Howard the sky hook, he said, “At least he'd have an offensive move.
“He gets the ball on offense, oh my God, he doesn't know what to do. It's usually a turnover, people come and take the ball from him or tie his arms up. Offensively, he doesn't get it. Hasn't made any progress. We (the Lakers, when Abdul-Jabbar was a special assistant coach) played them in '09, and when I saw him this past season, he was the same player.”
O’Neal was just as harsh in his criticism of Howard when he was on ESPNLA 710 last month.
“He's too nice," O'Neal said. "I'm a connoisseur of giggling and playing and all that and making you laugh and playing with the fans, but when I cross that line, I'm ready to tear your face off. I don't care who it is. You could put one of my aunts or uncles out there, and I'm going to give him these elbows in their chest and I'm going to throw it down in their face. That's what you have to do. ... He's just too nice. If I was him, I would get into the same mood I was in."
Kobe Bryant shuffled into a conference room on the second floor of the Los Angeles Lakers' practice facility Monday with crutches under his arm and special Nike "Medical Mambas" on his feet and sat down for a near 30-minute interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com.
The discussion included a wide range of topics, including Bryant's thoughts on his rehab, Dwight Howard and Phil Jackson comparing him to Michael Jordan that have already been covered on the site.
Here's the best of the rest:
On tearing his Achilles tendon against Golden State ...
"I haven’t watched it, but just being in the moment, I knew what happened. I knew that was it. I was done. Walking back to the bench, I tried to figure out where I could put pressure on my foot to try to minimize the pain and just try to get through the these last two minutes of the game. I tried walking on my heel and I felt like that was going to work, believe it or not, for a little bit and then it kind of just feels like the tendon in your Achilles is just rolling up your calf and I thought, ‘You know what? Probably not a good idea, but I got to shoot these two free throws.’ These last two minutes, whatever it is left, all this work that we’ve done to get to this point, I got to step up and knock these down."
On where those free throws rank with the best shots of his career ...
"I’d say in terms of a moment, it’s right up there at the top because of what we went through as a team -- all the injuries we went through as a team. For me, I just felt like, just go up there and make them. You can’t let your team down. If you’re going to shoot them, you better make sure you make them. That’s where my focus was. And my teammates, I don’t think any of them really knew how severe it was. I looked at Steve. I think Steve was the one who committed the foul and I just looked at him like, ‘Dude, that’s it. I’m done.’"
On the size of his hands compared to Jordan's ...
"Michael was blessed with massive hands and Dr. J (Julius Erving) as well and some of these other players. I wasn’t. I have big hands, but (Jordan and Erving) can literally pick up the ball like an orange, so I’ve had to do things to strengthen my hands, strengthen my forearms to make sure I have that grip to be able to do it. They obviously had the natural capabilities to do it. I had to work to get that strength to be able to do it."
On which young players he appreciates ...
"There’s a few of them. I really like KD (Kevin Durant) quite a lot and what he does and how he plays and how he works. There are several other young players I really enjoy, (Russell) Westbrook being another one and they just both happen to be on the same team. James Harden, who is now in Houston and Carmelo Anthony, obviously, we’ve had a long relationship. But, just as a whole, players who get injured and go down: David Lee -- I felt it was my responsibility to reach out to him and make sure that he was alright. Harrison Barnes, he’s like a little brother to me. There’s guys in the league that I definitely look out for and try to steer them in the right direction."
On Tim Duncan ...
"There’s all this competition about who does this generation belong to, in terms of Tim and myself, and I enjoy hearing those conversations. I think what he’s done, I think he’s a great example for kids who grow up playing the game and understanding and learning the fundamentals and the work ethic.
"This last summer he’s done things with his body in terms of monitoring his diet and changing up some of his training and he’s come back in phenomenal shape at a lower weight and you can see the results. As a competitor, that’s what you want to see. People get caught up a lot in the results and this, that and the other, but I really can appreciate from afar what players do to get to that level."
On his level of admiration for Gregg Popovich ...
"Huge. I don’t understand how he does it. Just year after year, getting guys to buy into the system and plugging in the supporting cast around Manu (Ginobili), Tony (Parker) and Tim just year after year after year. We’ve been saying the Spurs have been done for how long now? As a Laker fan, we thought we put the nail in the coffin back in ’08. Like, that was it, and they just keep coming back."
"No one can handle it. It's different now," Cuban said. "Now in the Twitter era, going back and forth means 10000 people retweeting you and 8000 people retweeting them. It's just a different dynamic."
But Shaq and Phil have always been different. Not only could they handle Cuban's barbs, they seemed to enjoy the back and forth.
"He was a nice foil," Cuban said of O'Neal, who had his Lakers No. 34 jersey retired in a ceremony Tuesday night. " I think when he realized I wouldn't back down from him, that I'd come right back at him, then it got fun for both of us. And we've stayed friends. We're good friends now."
And Phil Jackson?
"Like Shaq, they're both part of what makes the NBA unique," Cuban said. "There's not a lot of personalities that really define themselves not just by their accomplishments on the court but by their wit and intelligence off the court. That's good for any entertainment business."
Tuesday night Cuban dialed up a fresh round of zingers for O'Neal and Jackson, who was on hand to introduce and honor the big man who led the Lakers to three consecutive NBA titles from 2000-02.
"I have great respect for Phil, Jeanie's husband, as he'll from now on be known since Jeanie's still in the league," Cuban said, referring to Jackson's fiancee, Lakers executive Jeanie Buss.
"Someone's gotta be the first Housewife of the Lakers. I'm glad it's Phil."
Cuban spoke before the Lakers 101-81 win that basically knocked Dallas out of the playoff race. The Mavs are now 2 1/2 games back of the Lakers and Jazz for the eighth spot.
"Both teams have had injuries and issues," he said. "But you are what your record is so you've just got to deal with it."
How it happened: The Lakers jumped out to a 16-point lead with Kobe Bryant leading the way, getting off to a tremendous start with seven points, three rebounds, one assist and one block in the first quarter (and also tallying several approval-seeking glances to Phil Jackson, it seemed, who was sitting next to Jeanie Buss in the second row). Things got a little hairy in the fourth quarter (that wasn't meant to be a Dallas beard joke, but it works) as L.A.'s lead was cut to eight, but the Lakers surged late to take it by 20.
What it means: The Lakers are 2-0 on their quest to finish off the season 9-0 and they may have quieted the Mavericks for good, as they now lead them by 2 1/2 games with seven left to play. Now they just have to catch the Utah Jazz, who owns the tiebreaker over the Lakers despite the teams having the same record.
Hits: Before the game, O'Neal challenged Dwight Howard to consistently average 28 points and 10 rebounds. Howard came close with 24 and 12.
Earl Clark was everywhere with 17 points, 12 rebounds and a career-high five rebounds.
L.A. held the Mavs to just 81 total points on 42 percent shooting.
Misses: After tying a season low with just seven turnovers against Sacramento on Saturday, the Lakers had 18 turnovers against Dallas leading to 16 points.
Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison combined to shoot just 4-for-16.
Stat of the game: Bryant racked up his second triple-double of the season with 23 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds.
What's next: The Lakers have the day off Wednesday before getting back at it Thursday when they hope Steve Nash's strained right hip and hamstring will be healthy enough for him to ramp up to return to the lineup Friday against the Memphis Grizzlies.
One player who does not like the comparison is Payton.
“I don’t see any comparisons,” Payton said. “First of all, we had a coach in Phil Jackson who was a coach who could deal with all our situations. We had the players around us that could do their jobs and knew what their roles were. Phil Jackson had brought those people in. [Mike] D’Antoni is a coach that came in during the season and he didn’t know what was happening, he didn’t know what kind of players he had, he didn’t know what was going on.”
Much like this year’s Lakers, the 2003-04 Lakers also dealt with their fair share of injuries. In fact, Payton, Derek Fisher and Devean George were the only players on that team who played all 82 games. O’Neal missed multiple games as he quibbled with management about a contract extension; Bryant missed several as he dealt with a sexual assault trial in Colorado; and Malone, who had only missed 10 games his entire career, missed 40 games with a knee injury.
“We got hurt; a lot of us got hurt that season,” Payton said. “Kobe was going through what he was going through, and if Karl Malone hadn’t gotten hurt in the 24th game, we would have been a great basketball team. Shaq was going through his stuff with management and he really didn’t want to be here. We still fought through it the whole year, we were up and down, but we still went to the NBA Finals where we just ran into a good Detroit team that was more together and had a focus to be together and beat a team that was really in turmoil.”
Payton, who is in Los Angeles for the launch of Thuzio, a website that connects fans with athletes, believes Jackson would have been a better fit for this Lakers team than D’Antoni and said Jackson’s Triangle offense wouldn’t have hampered Nash as much as people think; it may not be the best offense for a ball-dominant point guard, but Jackson would have found a way to make it work.
“The Triangle wasn’t a good offense for me but I chose to come here, knowing what kind of offense it was,” Payton said. “Phil was the type of person where he would adjust it if it didn’t work for somebody; he would let them do a little bit more. He let Kobe do a lot of things that he let Michael Jordan do. When we came in there, we had to adjust to the Triangle, which was hard, and we needed to do different stuff. It is hard for a point guard who is used to dominating the ball a lot to go into that system, but I still think with his experience and how many times he has won championships, he could have made everyone fit to his system and then given Steve Nash a little rein to do what he wanted to.”
As talented as the Lakers are, Payton isn’t sure if the current roster fits D’Antoni’s style and isn't sure they will be able to turn it around in time to make a playoff run.
“You have to have the right core of players. You have to have the right players for the type of style that he wants to play right now,” Payton said.
“When they started off, a lot of guys had to fit in. When you bring in a lot of new guys like that, they have to learn to fit in. You brought Dwight Howard from a team where he was the man and now he’s on a team where Kobe is the man. Steve Nash has never been a guy who hasn’t had the ball in his hands all the time to direct traffic and do things. Kobe is that man on the Lakers. It’s a lot of adjusting and it just hasn’t adjusted right yet.”
Payton believes it will take the Lakers a season to adjust to playing with each other and to D’Antoni’s style but that it could eventually work. Payton and the 2003-04 Lakers never got a second chance after losing to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals. After that season, Jackson left, O’Neal was traded to Miami, Payton was traded to Boston and Malone retired. Payton hopes these Lakers get the second chance his Lakers never got.
“You have to go through a year like this and hope they keep the team together and let them come back next year,” Payton said. “Don’t do what they did to us and break the team up and never give us a chance to come back.”
It remains to be seen who'll be on the sideline coaching the Lakers tonight, but whether its Mike D'Antoni or Bernie Bickerstaff, the Lakers will look to maintain their momentum and tighten up the execution on both sides of the ball. Here are three things to be mindful of once the ball is jumped.
1. Will the Lakers' high-octane offense continue to explode?
Take a cursory glance at the numbers and you'll see 92.5 points a night surrendered by Brooklyn, the sixth-lowest in the NBA. On the surface, they would appear quite the defensive juggernaut. However, a little more digging shows an opponent field goal percentage of 45.3 percent, tumbling the Nets well into the bottom third of the league when it comes to protecting the basket. How are these intertwined, yet polar opposite findings possible? Well, tonight's visitors play like their offense is being quarterbacked by a snail. The NBA's fourth-slowest pace means fewer possessions, which means fewer opportunities for the enemy to score. In other words, the Nets are plodding their way to smaller point totals for the opposition, rather than achieving through maximum lockdown.
Looking at the Nets' roster, this isn't surprising. Save Gerald Wallace, no member of the starting five will likely gun for any Defensive Player of the Year votes. Joe Johnson's best days sticking a wing scorer are behind him. Deron Williams and Kris Humphries are somewhere between "average" and "decent enough not to kill you." And Brook Lopez has been a train wreck defensively his entire career. Off the bench, rebounding savant Reggie Evans is more of an energetic defender than a truly effective one, MarShon Brooks is inexperienced and Andray Blatche's indifference to lockdown is in part what prompted the Wizards' decision to use the amnesty clause on him.
Thus, the Nets' best approach for keeping points low is manufacturing a crawl, and for the first time in eons, the Lakers won't play along. During this D'Bickerstaff era, the Lakers haven't necessarily become a fast-break factory, but they're no longer the methodically slow squad Brooklyn would prefer to face. Removed from a comfort zone, I don't expect the Nets to keep an opponent in the low 90s. For that matter, it'll be interesting to see if they can simply remain effective at keeping the Lakers off the line, a spot where Kobe and Company have taken frequent residence this season.
2. Who defends Deron Williams?
By his standards, the Nets' franchise face is off to a slow start. Whether gauged through points, field goal percentages from the field or the arc, assists or rebounds, D-Will is putting up numbers below his career clips, figures that aren't necessarily indicative of playing for a team with more talent and more statistical wealth spread about. However, he's still Deron Freakin' Williams, meaning the odds favor him remaining a handful even if he's still in the process of feeling out a new roster. With that in mind, it'll be interesting to see who spends the majority of minutes checking the three-time All-Star.
As I noted in Sunday's Rapid Reaction, Darius Morris' rapid improvement hasn't just been notable while running the offense. The kid's demonstrating fine defensive instincts, in particular his understanding of how to use his big body. But Williams is the rare point guard who doesn't surrender size to Morris and has a vast edge in veteran smarts. If Morris struggles, could Chris Duhon, who's played solid-if-unspectacular minutes with the Steves out, handle extended minutes against D-Will? And can the Lakers handle Duhon in extended minutes? He may be a credible enough defender, but his presence limits the overall dynamism of the offense. Does the answer perhaps lie within the starting lineup? Metta World Peace can certainly bully Williams physically, and those vice-grip hands can induce turnovers from even the most elite point guards. But will his feet cooperate? If he's not fast enough to stay with Williams, the challenge could fall on Kobe.
In the past, the Lakers have looked to avoid extended periods latching Kobe to such a difficult assignment, given the scoring burden additionally shouldered. But given how judiciously Kobe's letting shots fly this season, that energy may not require as much preservation. Maybe we'll see the Mamba go at Williams throughout the closing minutes, which would obviously be fun.
3. Dwight Howard vs. Brook Lopez
Yeah, that Brook Lopez. The one Shaquille O'Neal famously/ridiculously presented as better than Howard. The Diesel's analysis clearly wasn't appreciated by Dwight, but he responded by reminding Shaq that he's currently out to pasture, rather than taking any shots at Lopez. No need to drag the twin any further into this mess. Still, Howard's willingness to take the verbal high road needn't necessarily bleed onto the hardwood. I wouldn't be surprised if Howard looks to prove the inanity of O'Neal's comments by launching a full-blown assault at Lopez's expense.
His response? "Gotta be done!"
Oh, yes. Yes, it does.
With the Lakers on the verge of playing real games with one of their most star-studded rosters, we wanted to get Harper's take on what may lie ahead for the purple and gold. As always, we also talked some music, including "Get up!," his upcoming collaboration with blues legend Charlie Musselwhite. (Harper was kind enough to give us advanced copies of the CD, and it's fantastic. Chock-full of slide guitar, harmonica, gorgeous vocals and other assorted goodies; if you enjoy blues, mark your calendars for Jan. 29.)
The show can be heard by clicking on the module, and a breakdown of talking points is below:
- (1:15): Less than two minutes into the podKast, a Christmas present for Ben emerges: A Lakers jersey with "Kamenetzky" on the back. Seriously. He wants one. How can someone with such strong taste in music have such poor taste in Lakers gear?
- (4:02): Harper recounts his delighted reaction to Steve Nash and Dwight Howard entering the fold. It was yet another strong summer for Mitch Kupchak, which raises a poignant question. Why don't more people rock a "Kupchak" jersey in gratitude for everything he's done over the last five years? Or a "Kupchak" neck tat, if that's your preferred way of giving thanks?
- (6:36): Harper may be a rock star whose life is filled with fame, connections and oodles of perks. But that doesn't mean he can't relate to Joe Q. Laker Fan shut out while Time Warner Cable negotiates deals with various providers. As US Weekly would say, "Stars: They're just like us!"
- (11:00): Ben shares his expectations for the season, neatly summarized in one word: Championship.
- (12:30): From Cream to Audioslave, rock has seen its share of "super groups." They often produce fantastic music, but the shelf life is typically short, given the egos involved. Harper, who's collaborated with enough legends to understand the dynamic involved, explains how the "super group" issues mirror those that faced by the Lakers with their video game starting five.
"You have to be as ready to learn and listen as you do contribute. And you contribute by learning and listening. Taking a step back. Knowing when to step back. Knowing when to leave the room. Knowing when to be present. A lot goes into the personal dynamics of making a super group or a collaboration work. But when they work, they work. It's chemistry."- (21:45): Ben didn't get my August memo about why the 2013 super team Lakers aren't the 2004 super team Lakers, so we break down the differences and calm his nerves.
- (27:00): Kobe has talked frequently and insistently about retiring after 2-3 seasons, in part because of a drastic slippage he'd rather avoid than accept, and also because of how hard the aging process makes the preparation that comes with playing at Kobe's level. As a musician with a career now 20+ years in the books, Ben understands the difficulty of maintaining his own standards, as well as the physical and mental grind of touring, seeking inspiration, etc. How does he keep the process feeling fresh?
He also attempts to uncover the meaning of life and our purpose on this planet, but that's a bit trickier.
- (35:08): We close the show with "I Don't Believe a Word You Say," a track from "Get up!" Good stuff.
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.
As ESPN.com's J.A. Adande writes, high-end teammates could be the perfect recipe for a collaborative effort:
"If this Lakers thing is going to work, they'd better hope the wisdom of Steve Jobs applies to basketball as well as it did to business.
I'm reading Walter Isaacson's well-done biography of Jobs, and was struck by the profoundness in one simple quote. After Jobs returned to Apple for his second tour as CEO, he drew a lesson from his past and tried to surround himself with as much talent as he could, regardless of the egos. (Yes, tech geeks have egos too.)
"The Mac team was an attempt to build a whole team like that, A players," Jobs told Isaacson. "People said they wouldn't get along, they'd hate working with each other. But I realized that A players like to work with A players, they just didn't like working with C players."
And that's what it comes down to with the Lakers, isn't it? All five starters -- Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace -- have been A players on their teams during their careers. If they all view each other as equals, communicate on an A-to-A level and appreciate working with peers, this can function.
In a brief interlude from the crush of reporters at the Lakers' facility on media day, I handed my cell phone to Kobe to let him read the Jobs quote. He studied it and said, "That describes my whole career."
Monday, I noted when surrounded by Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton (all Hall of Famers, though only O'Neal was still truly an elite player at that point) during the '03-'04 season, Kobe's usage rate dropped under 30 percent, the one time that has happened since '99-'00. So small sample size notwithstanding, there is some precedent to the notion Bryant gives more when he's surrounded by more.
(And nine seasons later, I would argue Kobe has a better understanding of leadership and team dynamics, along with a vastly heightened sense of his own basketball mortality. There isn't time to screw around arguing over shots.)
Obviously, the dynamic of this year's team is still to be determined, but as Adande notes, the Jobs philosophy -- that it's because Kobe is playing with A-list guys he's likely to mesh well with them -- could be the key to making it work successfully.
They had spoken briefly a few months earlier under far different circumstances -- before Howard had given away his leverage by opting into the final year of his deal with the Orlando Magic; before Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers had been thumped by the Oklahoma City Thunder, losing for the second straight season in the second round of the playoffs.
Everything was different this time. They'd both been humbled enough to realize how much they needed each other. But they also knew there was only one way it could work.
The Lakers still had to be Kobe's team.
The terms are pretty simple: For at least the next two seasons -- the years remaining on Bryant's current contract -- or for however many seasons he decides to keep playing, the Lakers are Bryant's team. After that, he will gracefully hand off the NBA's most glamorous franchise to Howard.
"I got a question earlier about whose team this is," Bryant said Monday at the Lakers annual media day. "I don't want to get into the, 'Well, we share ...'
"No, it's my team. But I want to make sure that Dwight, when I retire, this is going to be his. I want to teach him everything I possibly know so that when I step away, this organization will ride on as if I never left."
They didn't talk about all that over the phone this summer. Nothing was signed or agreed upon. Dwight Howard's making that call said everything.
We read too much into the order of things sometimes. Who calls who and in what order. Who said what when? Who stood in front of whom?
But in this case it's important. Earlier in the summer, Bryant had communicated to Lakers executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss that if the team had a chance to get Howard, it should do everything in its power to do so.
It was his way of letting the organization know he was happy to share the spotlight in L.A., then help mentor and prepare the organization's next standard bearer to replace him someday. Whenever the transition came, it would be a peaceful one. Not like the ugly handoff between Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant in 2004.
"This organization has done so much for me. I'm so thankful to them," Bryant explained. "That's one of the conversations that Jimmy and I had over the summer. It was like, 'If you have the opportunity to get Dwight over the summer, get him, because I want to see this organization continue to flourish and continue to be successful long after I'm gone.'"
Bryant knew exactly what he was doing and saying. What it meant for the rest of his career and his legacy. If he said he might retire in two years, that he would gracefully hand off the Lakers to Howard after that, he had to mean it.
But he also knew this really was the moment when he would be able to show how much he'd learned and grown from the way his relationship with O'Neal ended.
It was Howard's turn to go next. Bryant had given his blessing to the trade in his communication with Buss. He'd opened the door.
To walk through it, Howard had to reach out and say something like this:
"Learning from Kobe, I think this is something that I need for myself so I can grow as a player and as a person," Howard said on Monday. "He’s been through almost every single situation possible on the court and off the court, and I think he can really help me out a lot."
Howard is still finding his voice with the media here. Still getting comfortable in a new town. Still figuring out how to be himself again and not the guy who wanted out of Orlando so he could chase a title but was too nice to keep saying so all of last season. But this response was perfect.
Deferential. Respectful. Tacitly accepting the terms of the arrangement Bryant had effectively laid out for him. If all goes as outlined, Howard will sing this tune for the next two seasons.
For all the twists and turns leading up to it, you wonder if the trade could've gone down in any other way. If Howard would've been able to accept his (temporary) place here without having been humbled so deeply by the process.
But you also wonder if Bryant would have offered up these kinds of terms without having lived and learned from the way it ended with O'Neal.
Twice this summer he happily welcomed another star into the fold knowing full well that if the Lakers win a title with Steve Nash and Howard, it changes the way people will view his sixth NBA championship.
That acceptance, the act of opening the door for Nash and Howard to walk through, will define the end of Bryant's career. And it's why both newcomers are so willing to let the Lakers remain his team.
"This is undoubtedly Kobe's team," Nash said. "He's been here his whole career. He's won championships. And he's the best player on the team."
It's too soon to know if all these best-laid plans will hold up. The Lakers don't officially pick up a basketball until Tuesday. Howard might not don a Lakers uniform until the end of the month as he continues to return from back surgery.
But the terms and roles have been set. The Lakers are still Kobe's team. He will score, Nash will quarterback, Howard will learn, Pau Gasol will thrive. So long as nobody tries to renegotiate ...
"All we have to do is be ourselves," Howard said. "We don’t have to be anything extra or do anything out of the ordinary but just have fun and be ourselves, and we’ll be fine."
Here are a few of the more interesting bits of information, along with milestones to watch for over the course of the year:
1. "Kobe Bryant enters the season 5th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, 1,935 points behind Wilt Chamberlain for 4th. Bryant has scored at least 1,936 points in each of the last six full 82-game seasons.
Most Points in NBA History
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 38,387
Karl Malone 36,928
Michael Jordan 32,292
Wilt Chamberlain 31,419
Kobe Bryant 29,484
Bryant is also 287 free-throw makes away from tying Oscar Robertson for 3rd on the all-time list for free throws made."
- LOL: The moment eventually creating enough hype to explode the Internet will be when Kobe passes Jordan -- theoretically possible this year (Kobe's career high for points in a season is 2,832) but far more likely coming in 2013-14 -- but hopping Wilt is pretty monumental, too. That Kobe has been picking off different players on different lists for the last few seasons shouldn't desensitize people to the achievement. We're talking about Wilt Chamberlain, here.
- LOL: MWP's awful first half was directly tied to the shape in which he arrived at camp. Specifically, round. And while round can be funny, it's not a good look for a pro baller who lives off his defensive mobility. After he lost weight and got his body together, World Peace's effectiveness rose drastically on both sides of the floor. This year, by all accounts MWP arrives in great condition, physically. Given how linear his job description will be -- lock down the opposition's best wing, hit the occasional wide open corner 3 -- a healthy, fit Metta could be the perfect complement to the four potential All-Stars around him in the starting lineup.
- LOL: Kobe Bryant is going to be a high-usage player, appropriately so. But that the last time he was below 30 came when surrounded by another star-studded lineup (in which the stars weren't as bright as this year's group) means something. During the Lakers' two recent championships when his help was more consistent, Kobe's usage was lower, as well. I'm among those believing big picture the Lakers (code for Kobe, let's be honest) won't have significant issues sharing the ball. There could be some muscle memory Bryant has to unwind and at some point he'll be criticized for forcing a shot (or shots) when another option would have been better, but overall Kobe will see the talent around him as an opportunity, not some kind of threat. If nothing else, he'll share the sandbox just to spite those who think he can't.
LOS ANGELES -- Before Dwight Howard was introduced as the Los Angeles Lakers’ newest center last month, he took a quick tour of the team’s training facility. As he walked around Jeanie Buss’ office, he took a long look at the 10 Larry O’Brien trophies the team has won in Los Angeles since 1980 before gazing out her window at the retired jerseys on the walls surrounding the practice court.
When Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak introduced Howard during his introductory news conference, he wasted little time expressing the expectations placed on the six-time All-Star center.
“We're hopeful that 10 years from now,” Kupchak said, “we can add a jersey to that wall over there that says Dwight Howard.”
If Howard is to join the likes of fellow big men Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and, later this season, Shaquille O’Neal with retired jerseys at the Lakers’ practice facility and Staples Center, he will have to deliver much like his predecessors in the paint did.
And much like Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and O’Neal, Howard was acquired by the Lakers in what is considered the prime of his career and with the expectation of winning championships.
Is that a realistic expectation for Howard in his first season with the Lakers? Every situation is different, of course, but perhaps looking at how Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and O’Neal contributed to the Lakers during their debut seasons with the team can provide a realistic idea of what to anticipate from Howard in his first season in L.A.
In considering the impact Wilt, Kareem and Shaq had during their premiere seasons here we looked at the change in the Lakers’ record; offensive and defensive efficiency; team offensive and defensive rebound rate; and team free throw rate -- all of which a dominant big man can influence tremendously.
We also looked at the field goal percentage of the other Lakers on the court (by taking the team’s field goal percentage and subtracting all the attempts by the big man) and the opponent free throw rate and shooting percentage -- under the theory that a dominant big man forces teams away from the basket, which should equate to fewer fouls drawn and more missed shots.
Chamberlain was traded to the Lakers on July 9, 1968, from the Philadelphia 76ers for center Darrall Imhoff (who Chamberlain scored 100 points on when Imhoff played for the New York Knicks), forward Jerry Chambers and guard Archie Clark.
Chamberlain became the first reigning NBA MVP to be traded the following season. Chamberlain led the league in rebounding his first season with the Lakers, averaging 21.1 boards per game, and field goal percentage (.583), as the Lakers improved their win total by three games and won the Western Division. Chamberlain’s rebound average in 1968-69 is the highest in club history.
While the Lakers held teams to 7.5 fewer points per game with Chamberlain, they also scored 9 fewer points and the team’s field goal percentage not including Chamberlain dipped by 2.7 percent.
Bucher asked Howard what, while looking back on the "Dwightmare," he'd do over if possible. The center insisted he has no regrets, that everything happens for a reason, and he ultimately wouldn't change a thing because the final result was positive. That being said, he still recognizes the chance to reclaim his image.
"This is a great time in my career," explained Howard. "I have a chance to start over. This is a clean slate. I'm gonna do whatever I can on the court, off the court, to just show people that this is who I am. I haven't changed. I'm the same person. I love to have fun. I love to smile. I love to joke. But when I step on the court, I'm gonna have fun. I'm gonna joke. And I'm gonna dominate. That's how it's always been."
I realize there are fans who'll chafe at this sentiment, as Dwight's taken heat over the years for not taking the game seriously enough. Some don't care for the impersonations, funny interviews and persistent grin. Personally, I think it's pretty difficult to win Defensive Player of the Year three consecutive years, lead the league in rebounds four times and carry a team to a Finals appearance without being fully invested, but that's just me. There are those who prefer players like Kobe and MJ who remain in "steely assassin" mode 24/7 and that's fine. Everyone is entitled to their own aesthetics.
But at the same time, a player is also entitled to his own identity, and cultivating an unnatural persona is often a recipe for failure. Hearing Dwight insist on being who he is reminded me of the way LeBron James mentioned on several occasions last season his concerted effort to bring back the joy to his game. When he left Cleveland, he was cast as the villain, and James made the mistake of trying to embody the persona chosen for him by fans and media. Unfortunately, NBA basketball isn't WWE wrestling, where good guys and bad guys are determined through a writer's meeting. This is real life, where being hated ain't fun. LeBron was transparently uncomfortable in the role of the heel, and one season later stopped playing the game from a place of spite.
Safe to say, quality results followed.
Similarly, I'm hoping Dwight remains comfortable enough to be himself in L.A. Under any circumstances, he'll be playing basketball inside a metaphorical fishbowl placed underneath a high-powered microscope. That's life as a Laker if you're Troy Murphy, much less a Hall-of-Fame caliber player arriving on the heels of a PR disaster. It is what it is, and it can't be changed. However, the transition will ultimately be made easier by Howard not trying to be someone he isn't. As Howard acknowledged many times in this conversation, you can't please everybody. Then again, being himself has played out pretty well for Howard over eight years in the NBA. Fundamentally, there's no reason to drastically change, and trying to might cause more problems than it solves.
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