When the principal pieces of the current iteration of the Miami Heat came together, they were given that convenient “Big Three” nickname to recognize Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh making Miami their mutual free-agency destination.
But the moniker has always been a bit of a misnomer. Not to take anything away from Bosh, a seven-time All-Star in his own right, but the two that would determine their title chances were always Wade and James.
The Los Angeles Lakers are going through a similar situation this season. Dwight Howard and Steve Nash were brought in to join Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol and the alliance was quickly referred to as a “Fantastic Four.” Yet just like in Miami, there are really two players in that mix who will decide L.A.’s championship hopes -- Bryant and Howard.
“Me and Kobe being the leaders, we can’t focus on the negative,” Howard told reporters Thursday with the team still feeling the aftershock of its 1-4 start. “We can’t sulk into the fact that we’ve been losing games. We got to find a way to overcome it.”
Gasol is technically the co-captain of the team and has already won two rings in the purple and gold and Nash is a two-time league MVP and plays point guard, the position that lends itself to leadership more than any other, but Howard was right to boldly declare the Lake Show are a two-man act.
Bryant and Howard’s challenge to find harmony between their games on the basketball court does not seem nearly as daunting as it did for Wade and James. Bryant is the offense-minded guard and Howard is the defense-minded center, whereas Wade and James had to find a way to minimize redundancy as two slashing wings who liked the ball in their hands every possession.
It took the Heat the better part of two seasons to finally figure out who was the Alpha dog and that process was aided by necessity. Wade was slowed down in the playoffs by a bum left knee, elevating James as the clear-cut No. 1 guy. In retrospect, it seems almost silly that it took so long for things to shake out that way considering James’ ascension as the undisputed best player in today’s game, but remember, James was the outsider joining Wade’s team. Wade was the one who spent his entire career with the Heat. Wade was the one with a championship under his belt already. Wade was the face of the franchise.
Where Howard and Bryant are sure to find it much tougher to come together is off the court. Whereas Wade and James had a strong pre-existing relationship that stemmed from entering the league in the same 2003 draft class, playing on USA Basketball’s senior men’s team together from 2004-2008 and suiting up on the same East squad in numerous All-Star games together, Bryant and Howard don’t have any of those commonalities.
Wade and James are only two years apart in age; Bryant and Howard are seven. Wade and James conduct their postgame press conferences jointly, collaborating on their state of the team address on a nightly basis; Bryant is the first Laker to do postgame interviews these days while Howard is the last, often times more than 30 minutes after Bryant. Bryant and Howard were on that ’08 Olympic team just like Wade and James were, but they didn’t blossom nearly the same type of friendship. A year after Beijing, Bryant denied Howard his chance at a ring when L.A. beat Orlando in the Finals.
Ultimately it was that friendship, I think, that allowed Wade to swallow his pride and open the doors in Miami up for James to run through. He genuinely wanted to see James succeed and was OK if he would be a part of that success, rather than the reason for it. When times got tough in last year’s playoffs, they leaned on that friendship and believed in one another.
Bryant and Howard don’t have that relationship going for them and who knows if they ever will.
On media day, Bryant let everyone know that “it’s my team” even with the infusion of new faces. He made sure to make mention of Howard, saying, “I want to make sure that Dwight, when I retire, this is going to be his,” but he was keeping the pecking order that put him on top firmly in place.
All the focus for Lakers fans this season seems to be the notion of “Beat the Heat” and winning the championship. Maybe the goal should be “Be the Heat,” however. If Bryant and Howard can develop the type of trust and rapport that Wade and James have together, the Lakers will have their best chance of sustained success. If they don’t, and Bryant treats Howard like an assistant rather than an associate, the Lakers won’t be considered a “Big Three” or a “Fantastic Four.” They’ll just be a guy looking out for No.1 rather than being a team with a legitimate shot at title No. 17.