EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The championship hopes of the splashiest team ever assembled west of Miami may rest partly on whether Kobe Bryant is good with a former Orlando Magic center who’s gregarious, playful, dominant and can’t shoot a lick from the free-throw line.
Ten years ago, that might’ve been a problem. Actually, it was a heck of a problem. We saw how things ended with Shaquille O’Neal. But not now. Maybe not ever again. This isn’t Shaq Act II in the making. This is an older Kobe, and a humbled Dwight Howard, and all should be swell between two demanding personalities who are used to being lead singers. If all goes accordingly for the retooled Lakers, the 2012-13 season and beyond will be a lot like media day: all smiles, all touchy-feely, all air kisses and not a single whiff of discontent in sight.
“I mean, he’s Kobe Bryant,” said Howard, mystified at any suggestion of a Kobe clash. “Who wouldn’t want to be with Kobe?”
Maybe Shaq, even with a dynasty at stake?
“Different dynamic than I had with Shaq,” said Kobe. “I don’t see it as being an issue at all.”
People change, situations change. That’s why this should work. Bryant is wiser now, and deep down, maybe a bit regretful he and Shaq didn’t string together a few more championships before they went at it. They fought over the ball and over control, and then personal issues crept into play, and eventually they took the storied franchise down to their petty level.
Yet, had Shaq and Kobe been blessed with a pass-first point guard who didn’t play favorites and whose only purpose was to please everyone, maybe the Lakers could’ve been spared the basketball version of the Lennon-McCartney split.
To that, Kobe says thank goodness for the arrival of Steve Nash. Better late than never.
“Having Steve helps tremendously,” Kobe said. “With Shaq, I had to do something that I naturally don’t do: be the quarterback. The responsibility of getting him the ball fell on me. That’s not what I do. Here, Steve’s the quarterback. I just run to my position.”
Yes, the designated facilitator and peace-maker is a two-time MVP who has led the league in total assists six times over the last eight years, even last season in Phoenix, when he served teammates who couldn’t shoot. Even at age 38, Nash is someone whose love for sharing is second only to his passion for soccer. Bryant has never had a Nash in his life, and for that matter, neither has Howard. Therefore, if the marriage between Kobe and Howard shows even the slightest bit of strain going forward, at least they have the best divorce counselor in basketball.
Kobe and Shaq weren’t so lucky. While they won championships, there was always an undercurrent of jealousy between the two young superstars with huge appetites. The Lakers don’t make many mistakes as an organization, but one was the failure to find a point guard who could dominate the ball, which admittedly is easier said than done. First, such a point guard needed to be good enough to gain the respect of both players. And second, he had to be strong enough to ignore both players when they complained. The Lakers used to have such a player -- but Magic Johnson was long retired by then.
From 1999 to 2004, after which Shaq left in a huff, Bryant led the Lakers in assists every season but one. That was when Gary Payton was the starting point guard, and he all but threw his hands in the air and said, what the hell. Derek Fisher was on board through the bittersweet Kobe-Shaq era, but Fisher was mainly a shooter trapped in a point guard’s body; his true talent wasn’t creating shots for teammates.
Even after Shaq left, Kobe never had a pure point guard, or at least a really good one, so he never trusted any of them. He allowed them to control the ball only to a point. In big moments, the ball stayed in his hands. It became a common sight: When Kobe clapped twice, he wasn’t applauding; he wanted the ball, and the point guard instinctively gave it up.
Howard’s point man in Orlando was Jameer Nelson, a tough kid from the Philly area who was solid but never All-Star-caliber. There were many moments when Howard pouted through games and demanded to be more involved in the offense, which created problems with coach Stan Van Gundy. Which raises a question: If Howard had a Steve Nash in Orlando, would he even be with the Lakers?
Maybe it’s purple-and-gold destiny, then, that brought Howard and Kobe together, with Nash around to keep them that way.
“I can tell you that they both feel blessed to play alongside each other,” Nash said.
“Kobe has an undeniable amount of appreciation for a big man who is dominant. For Dwight, it’s a blessing to play alongside someone who can take the pressure off him, take the last shot at the end of a game. Dwight can concentrate on being a center and post big numbers in many other different ways. It’s about accepting roles and sacrificing.”
By saying he was “very excited” to get Howard this summer in a trade, Bryant all but agreed that Howard can help in ways Andrew Bynum couldn’t, even though Kobe won two titles with his former center. Kobe and Howard began to mesh soon after the Magic’s forced fire sale, which ended a year-long saga of Howard requesting and denying and requesting and re-signing and requesting again to be moved.
“He reached out to me, and we had a nice conversation,” Kobe said. “At that point, we became more focused on what we needed to do to win. He’s a really great guy, and really thankful to be here after going through that whole ordeal.”
As for Howard, he never had a teammate anywhere near Kobe’s level. Or Nash’s or Pau Gasol’s, for that matter. Because Kobe has five rings and is in the conversation for top-five player all-time, Howard has respect for Kobe, and respect invites the possibility of deference.
“Me and Kobe will be fine,” Howard said. “We just have to be who we are, and we both want to win. That’s all that matters.