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Sunday, April 14, 2013
Updated: April 15, 3:37 AM ET
Life after Kobe

By Ramona Shelburne

LOS ANGELES -- On the first day of training camp last fall, Kobe Bryant made one thing crystal clear:

This was still his team.

For better or worse, in sickness and in health, and for as long as he was putting on that No. 24 jersey, the Los Angeles Lakers were going to be Kobe Bryant's team.

The pecking order might change. Dwight Howard was going to be elevated above Pau Gasol in the offense. Steve Nash would have the ball in his hands more than Bryant. (That was the plan anyway.) But when it came down to it, at the end of the game, or when they looked in the mirror, Kobe would have the ball in his hands.

There was no contingency plan. There was no reason for one. This was just how it was going to be.

The Lakers will be without a leader for a while now that Kobe Bryant is out. But expect Dwight Howard to step into that role. It was a good start for the big man Sunday, as he posted 26 points and 17 boards.
Imagine, then, how strange it was Sunday night, when Bryant wasn't just out for the season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon but laid up in bed at his home in Newport Beach, Calif., completely immobilized for the next two weeks as he heals.

Yes, he called at halftime of the Lakers' 91-86 win over the San Antonio Spurs to offer encouragement to Pau Gasol after the Spaniard missed nine of his first 10 shots.

And, yes, he has been active on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook since the injury Friday night.

But other than that, he really wasn't there.

It was weird. Very weird.

For the first time in a long while, the Lakers were not Kobe Bryant's team. His presence was not felt. His spirit was miles away.

They aren't anybody's team right now. One day they will be Dwight Howard's. But as impressive as Howard's 26-point, 17-rebound night against the Spurs was, as great as his defensive effort was, it's just the start of things to come.

No, the Lakers are going to be a bit rudderless for a while. Led by different players on different nights, governed by Mike D'Antoni's system on offense and guided by Gasol's wisdom on the court and Howard's enthusiasm on defense.

There won't always be a plan. There won't always be a go-to guy.

But that doesn't mean they won't go.

"It's going to take a while to smooth things out and get things under control," D'Antoni said. "At the end of games, end of shot clocks, [Bryant] is the best in the business at it. That's where we have to figure out how to run plays and let the system do the thing.

"But Dwight will step up and go. Pau will do it. The system will do it. We'll just let 'em play and the ball will find whoever is open."

After the problems the Lakers had adapting to D'Antoni's system this season, that's not the most comforting thought.

But as you saw Sunday night, the Lakers actually have plenty of players capable of carrying a larger load.

Bryant is such a force of nature, you forget that some times. Players who were the No. 1 or No. 2 option on other teams have to adapt to playing with him. It's not the other way around.

For some like Antawn Jamison, who has played with stars such as LeBron James and Gilbert Arenas, it's not a difficult switch.

"There's definitely a different mindset you have to have," Jamison said. "When he's out there, you have to help him do his job.

"But when he's gone, the mentality switches to, 'I have to be aggressive. I have to play my game. I've been in this situation before.'"

For others like Howard, it takes a bit longer.

"That took 80 games," Howard joked, when asked how long it took him to learn to play with Bryant. "Kobe's a different type of player. "But you know, just watching Kobe and how he handled himself the whole year, it was great for me to watch."

And so now they move on. Forward, hopefully.

Having learned how to play with Bryant, they must unlearn it now without losing all he taught them.

"It's not about whose team this is," Gasol said. "It's about what we have to do on the floor in order to win."