The worst pairing in the NBA’s supposed Super Team era is unfolding into an ugly, public spectacle of clashing egos, conflicting agendas and contrasting personalities. Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard were a bad fit before the Los Angeles Lakers decided to unite the league’s most prolific scorer since Michael Jordan with a player generally considered the best big man of the modern era.
They were a bad fit before their reported tiff last month, before they staged a fake fight photo with Coach Mike D’Antoni and Bryant posted it on Twitter, before Bryant confronted him at a team meeting, and before Howard’s torn right labrum gave them divergent goals.
Bryant has hinted that he could call it a career when his contract expires after 2014, making his push to match Jordan with six titles – and possibly surpass him with a seventh – more urgent than ever. But while the 35-year-old Bryant is concerned about how things will end next year, the 28-year-old Howard is more worried about his long-term health and career.
Howard already decided to play before his back had fully healed from surgery last offseason; produced well below the standard he set with the Orlando Magic and owes no allegiance to the Lakers beyond this season, since he will be a free agent in July. He has also had to endure much of the blame for the Lakers’ shortcomings; a 6-foot-11 bulls-eye for fans of an angst-ridden franchise that has been moving in reverse since winning back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.
When the Lakers lost Pau Gasol for possibly the next two months with a torn plantar fascia last week and Bryant publicly declared that the Lakers didn’t have time to wait for Howard’s shoulder to heal, Howard was placed in an awkward position: Play and risk further damage to his banged-up shooting arm or sit and risk further damage to his reputation, which has taken a pounding ever since his flip-flopping-trade-me-don’t-trade-me-fiasco in Orlando.
Howard thought he had it bad when former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy exposed him as disingenuous and coolly told reporters last March that his franchise big man wanted him fired over a few sips of Diet Pepsi. But in Los Angeles, where the championships are the goal and anything less is considered failure, Howard is now dealing with having his toughness and commitment questioned by his coach and his teammates – an odd predicament for a player who only missed seven games in his first seven seasons.
Losing sight of what he had, Howard sacrificed his own personal kingdom in Orlando to possibly inherit an empire in Los Angeles – whenever Bryant decides to walk away – but he has treated the 16 championship banners and eight retired jerseys that hang above him at Staples Center as a haunting burden; allowing them to intimidate rather than motivate.
Credibility shot after some questionable bouts of indecision in recent years, Howard now carries himself with the body language of a player who would rather be elsewhere. The Lakers weren’t his first choice and possibly won’t be his next choice with the prospect of having to spend another season with Bryant and D’Antoni serving as a deterrent to the extra $30 million that he stands to earn by staying and signing for five years.
His desire to be liked as resulted in him receiving more hate. Bryant has provided cold-blooded, tough love rather than the support and encouragement Howard’s fragile psyche demands and has challenged Howard to accept a role as an ancillary piece instead being the focal point he was in Orlando.
The Lakers had to take the risk when Howard became available after pouting his way out of Orlando. Their championship legacy was built on mostly on the broad shoulders and imposing size of gifted and skilled centers from Mikan to Chamberlain to Abdul-Jabbar to O’Neal to a lesser extent Gasol.
They had a special talent in Andrew Bynum, the starter for the past two title teams, but Howard had more to offer with his explosiveness and ability to defend, rebound and dominate in ways that go beyond putting the ball in the basket. But since that Howard was somehow left behind in Orlando and replaced by inconsistent and sometimes ineffective version, the subsequent failing of his union with Bryant should be less stunning than the Lakers’ inability to steam-roll through the Western Conference with four potential Hall of Famers.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade needed two seasons to develop the necessary on-court chemistry to turn the Miami Heat into a champion. Carmelo Anthony and Amaré Stoudemire are only slightly beginning to work in New York because the two don’t share the floor very often. But merging superstar talent is a huge risk that requires a willingness for the two sides to forgo individual numbers in order to make it work.
In Los Angeles, Howard complains about touches while Bryant – aside from a short-lived run as a facilitator – continues to fire away without conscious.
This isn’t the first time Bryant feuded with a teammate and this certainly isn’t the venomous, combative relationship he shared with Shaquille O’Neal. O’Neal had a playful side that often rubbed the serious-minded Bryant the wrong way but despite their differences, the two players were dedicated to winning championships, disagreeing mostly on how they should go about winning them.
O’Neal and Bryant also had three years to learn each other before Phil Jackson arrived and brought it all together for an eventual three-peat. Howard and Bryant don’t have the benefit of time or Jackson, who probably is the only coach who could convince Bryant to defer more to Howard and get Howard to maximize his physical gifts.
D’Antoni, hired to solve a problems that got Mike Brown fired, has struggled to utilize his talent-laden roster and stubbornly misused Gasol before he went down. So the challenge of getting Bryant and Howard on the same page probably exceeds his capabilities – especially with the two players on opposite ends of the intensity scale.
Arguably the most carefree superstar in the league, Howard is in a constant battle with Bryant, who is easily the most ambitious and maniacal.
Howard never had an urgency to his career, since the Magic eased him along when he was drafted out of high school, gave him time to develop and only looked upon him for leadership after he had established himself. Even when he took advantage of Kevin Garnett’s knee injury in Boston and led Orlando, to the 2009 NBA Finals, Howard always seemed like someone who felt he was bound to get back, simply by his sheer force.
Bryant has had a compulsion to be great from the moment he arrived in the NBA out of high school, so much so that the Lakers actually had hold him back until they moved the all-star in front of him (Eddie Jones) after his superior talent became undeniable. He was determined to win without O’Neal, is determined to win now that Jackson is gone, but his advanced age has diminished the impact of his will.
The Lakers’ championship aspirations are pretty much a fantasy with a disastrous start and continued injury-related interruptions. But if the Lakers are to avoid their first lottery appearance since 2004-05 – when the first season after O’Neal left resulted in the selection of Bynum – Howard and Bryant will have to find some way to get their paths and purposes to connect. Given all that has occurred during a not-so-breezy season in Los Angeles and the lack of trust between its two biggest stars, it might already be too late.