- Johnette Howard, ESPN Staff Writer
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Ritually updated reports say Howard and Kobe Bryant aren't/are/aren't getting along, and Howard -- who can be a free agent after this season -- is now occasionally spouting off, not just Kobe. Nets center Brook Lopez can be traded starting Jan. 15. The latest Howard-to-Mavs rumor surfaced the other day. The All-Star break hasn't even arrived, and the Lakers' season is already being sized for a casket. Mike D'Antoni is being derided as an even worse coach for the Lakers than Mike Brown was, and the front office is being asked what'll it be? Risk losing Howard for nothing? Or trade him just five months after the Lakers nearly threw a parade just for landing him?
Do you feel another Dwight-mare coming on?
God save us all.
Of all the superstars who have relocated recently -- and you can throw in Chris Paul -- the Howard trade is the only match that so far hasn't worked.
The tongue-in-cheek photo that Bryant tweeted out Monday of himself and Howard squaring off in boxing stances with D'Antoni wedged between them, mugging as if he's trying to break up their faux fight, was hailed as a pitch-perfect attempt to squelch the growing dread.
But you could just as easily argue the photo deserves the opposite read: The idea that Bryant went to the trouble of arranging and putting it out just days after finally joining Twitter might actually validate the latest charge that all is not well.
Bryant tweeted the photo in response to a New York Daily News story a day earlier that maintained Bryant and Howard had an argument (not the first of their brief partnership) and nearly came to blows in the locker room after a New Year's Eve game against Philadelphia. The fact that the newspaper report would cut through all the noise, clutter and five-alarm concerns the short-handed Lakers were already trying to beat back and register -- in Bryant's mind, anyway -- as something necessary to address may actually not be a great sign.
It had already been widely reported that the Lakers "to a man" denied the argument happened. Yet Bryant wasn't willing to leave it at that.
The other argument that the photo signified little? Later the same day, during Alabama's rout of Notre Dame in Monday night's national championship football game, Bryant sent out this tweet to praise a brief, heat-of-the moment shoving match between Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron and center Barrett Jones:
"We just saw why bama will be bcs champs @10AJMcCarron and @barrettAjones not afraid to confront each other in order to win. #respect"
Translation: Hey, everyone? Just to be clear. No apologies for anything sharp I've done or said.
No wonder it feels like another Dwight-mare is brewing.
Is it any surprise the trade rumors are revving up?
Howard is, of course, notoriously fickle. His clumsy now-I-love-you/now-I-don't denouement in Orlando in some ways surpassed anything LeBron did before The Decision debacle on live TV.
Remember how Howard was an emotional mess in Orlando? Remember all the franchises held hostage and contradictory stories that floated up then sorta like now?
Howard's relationship with Bryant has run hot and cold from the get-acquainted phone call they held during the London Summer Olympics when it was first thought Howard might be traded to the Lakers rather than the Nets, his stated preference. Howard seemed to expect Bryant to court him effusively. Bryant threw off a my-way-or-else vibe instead. The conversation went so badly the trade was thought to be dead.
Howard, to his credit, has been less wishy-washy since arriving in L.A. He has at least pushed back at times at Kobe. He has even taken stabs at being a leader.
After the Clippers beat the Lakers last Friday to confirm what everyone already knew -- the Clips are the bona fide contenders the Lakers were supposed to coalesce into overnight -- Howard launched into a pointed soliloquy Saturday. He said it would be nice if the Lakers, too, played as if, you know they actually "like" each other. He wished aloud, not for the first time, that his team (read: Kobe) shared the ball.
The NBA trade deadline is Feb. 21.
Will Howard stay? Will he go? Once again, nobody knows.
So now the mood checks are resuming almost daily.
Dwight's happy! Dwight's sad :-((
Dwight's having a good day. Everybody exhale. Dwight's turned philosophical or irritated. Oh no! What does it mean?
At minimum, Howard is not acting like a man determined to put down roots in Los Angeles. Same as in Orlando, he seems to be actively appraising and reappraising everything that has gone on with the Lakers, and then teasing out how it should prejudice his decision about free agency or his projections of what personal fulfillment he can expect if he stays in L.A.
It can't help that Jim Buss, who now runs the team instead of his father, Jerry, has been called a poor imitation of the old man by no less than Magic Johnson. Jimmy is already the man who killed Phil Jackson's latest comeback. Does he dare be the exec who lost Howard too? These Lakers are already hearing if they miss the playoffs they'll be the biggest bust in NBA history. They are old and built to win now.
The pressure is enormous. And building.
The Lakers can pay Howard the most money. But what about peace of mind? True acceptance? What about Bryant's clear and stated bias against equally sharing the franchise player role with Howard before he retires?
Howard seems spectacularly unlikely to win any war of wills with Bryant. (Kobe isn't nicknamed Mamba for nothing.) Nor is Howard in position to run off Bryant the way a young Bryant ran off an older Shaq. So this is worth asking too: Does Howard really have the rock-ribbed will to endure the way his leadership or toughness or success will always be measured and refracted through the accomplishments of all the great Lakers stars before him, from West to Wilt to Kareem to Magic, not just Bryant? Or is Howard put off by what has already happened in his short test drive of life with the Lakers?
One man's gold-plated life can look like another man's golden handcuffs.
Judging from this quote that Howard gave ESPNLosAngeles.com's Ramona Shelburne Monday, the gears in his mind are going 'round and 'round, all right.
"You know when you're at the beach and you bend down to grab some sand?" Howard began. "What happens when you grab it too tightly? It all falls out, right? And what happens when you don't grab it tight enough? It all blows away, right? You have to hold it just tight enough. Just right.
"That's what we're trying to figure out. That's what we're still trying to figure out."
Howard said that a day before he irritably corrected on Tuesday the Lakers' announcement that he'd miss perhaps a week because he has a torn labrum in his shoulder.
Howard objected to the implicit suggestion that he might be damaged goods and require surgery, emphasizing that the muscle just had a little tear near the bone -- a clarification perhaps made purely out of principle, or perhaps because that's also an important bit of info for any trade-worthy asset or pending free agent to get out.
The bottom line: Comically staged photos and guffaws aside, Howard's relationship with the Lakers and with Bryant looks just adversarial enough to keep the relentless heat checks and scrutiny necessary. And the chatter will only get louder as the trade deadline keeps hurtling at them, at them, at them.
The Lakers have a long and glorious history of pulling off trade coups to reload on the fly rather than rebuild. It dates all the way back to Chamberlain, then Kareem, through their 1996 heist that sent Vlade Divac to the Hornets for the rights to Kobe, whom Charlotte had drafted straight out of high school. Then came Shaq.
Howard was hailed as the latest addition to that remarkable string. Just five months later, the reeling Lakers, who are 15-20 overall and losers of five straight, have to decide whether it's crazy to move Howard in the next month or crazier to risk losing him in free agency, knowing that would leave them with Kobe just a year or two from retirement and nothing to show for surrendering Andrew Bynum in the complicated deal that brought Howard to L.A.
They also have to decide how much Howard's slow recovery from offseason back surgery factors in. Or if they dare move Pau Gasol when he could at least play center if Howard does leave.
You see where this is heading, don't you?
The first Dwight-mare was bad enough.
The second could defy conventional wisdom.
Whoever says sequels rarely beat the original doesn't follow the NBA.