Kobe Bryant is frustrated with a former Orlando Magic center who clowns a lot and can't shoot free throws, and as we all know from the documented past, this probably won't end well.
At least Kobe won three championships with Shaquille O'Neal before running him off, and the story seems destined to repeat itself with Dwight Howard, minus the rings. Yes, their relationship, cozy at first – Kobe calling Dwight "misunderstood" and a "good dude" just three months ago when the Lakers were champions on paper – is veering off the yellow-bricked road and toward splitsville. Once you start questioning, even gently, a teammate's heart and pain threshold, really, is there any turning back? Isn't that the one injury that can't heal?
In a loopy 48-hour stretch, where the Lakers won their sixth out of seven games but lost Pau Gasol for six weeks, Kobe called out the player who holds the key to him winning a sixth championship. And see, that's the whole problem. Kobe's a win-at-any-cost guy. He doesn't care if he has to step over someone's dead body to win a championship. Meanwhile, Howard is putting a premium on his health and his future. Until he's 100 percent healthy on his terms, and that might not be this season, he's a yeah-I-want-a-championship-but guy. You see? This is one of those Hollywood marriages you give six months or less.
It can't work. It won't work. These are two players wired differently. One is too driven and single-minded. The other is too sensitive, casual and concerned about his next contract and how he's perceived by you and me. Kobe and Dwight is the combination designed to rescue the Lakers and at this point who would be surprised if it shipwrecks their big plans instead?
By his own admission, Kobe said it isn't easy being his teammate. He said this weeks ago, after he took a shot at Dwight's mental makeup. His standards are high, and he doesn't suffer fools. If he can't make you, he'll break you. When it comes to big men, he's been especially tough on every one: Shaq, Andrew Bynum, Gasol and now Howard. They all have Kobe's Nike footprint on their throats. And on the back of their shorts.
Kobe managed to get the best out of three of them, however, challenging them, even provoking them, eventually winning championships with them and giving each an apologetic, don't-take-it-personal bearhug when the "ordeal" was over. This experiment with Howard, however, will test all that. And there have been hints all along that, in his desire to mold yet another big man, Kobe finally has a challenge he can't conquer.
With slights disguised as motivational comments, Kobe has chiseled away at Howard all season until recently, when he grabbed a shovel. When Howard suffered a torn labrum, missed three games and was cleared (according to coach Mike D'Antoni) to play days ago but elected to wait until Thursday, well, you know what was coming.
Kobe: "It's something you have to balance out and manage," meaning, the ability to play through pain.
Kobe again: "We don't have time for it to heal. We need some urgency."
Dwight (on the defensive): "This is my career, my future and my life. I can't leave that up to anybody else. If I go down, then what? Everybody's life is going to go on."
Dwight again: "That's his opinion. He's not a doctor."
Kobe practically shamed Howard into playing Thursday night in Boston after putting him on blast. That went well; the Lakers were clobbered by 21 and Dwight was a total non-factor against Kevin Garnett. And while Kobe tried to backtrack and clarify – "I never told him to play with an injury" – there's clearly a disconnect between the two here at a make-or-break time of the season.
Kobe will never understand someone like Howard, who has thick shoulders but not thick skin. This is someone who admits he cries regularly: at the movies, at bad news, at sob stories, etc. That seems like a fairly human thing to do, at least when you're not around Kobe, who wakes up with a game face and wonders why you don't, too.
At stake here is the 2012-13 Lakers season, now looming as the most disappointing of any in NBA history. Might as well be blunt here: The Lakers can't afford a mishap or a losing streak or else Kobe's head will explode, and give the man credit for managing to keep it together this long. But the cracks are starting to show, and with Gasol expected to miss almost the rest of the regular season with a torn plantar fascia, the Lakers' margin for error is slimmer than Kobe's patience. They're sitting in 10th place and hoping either the Jazz or maybe the Rockets put a foot on a banana peel soon. Anything less than that and the Lakers are done. So Kobe's right in one sense, when he said the Lakers need to make a move starting now.
And he's wrong when he thinks he knows Howard's body better than Howard.
This is what angered Howard, when Kobe said: "I dealt with injuries. Not injuries that were debilitating, but injuries that you had to play through and had to manage the pain."
Translated: Man up, big man.
Kobe should know Howard missed only seven games in seven seasons before back surgery last summer. He should also know Howard takes as much punishment as anyone in the NBA, at least he did when healthy. How many times is he intentionally hacked and sent to the free-throw line?
It's hard to see Howard as a sympathetic figure, but Kobe's more in the wrong here, making assumptions based on … what? Kobe's standards? Well, there might not be another player who can match that. But again, given Howard's recent history of durability and the position he plays, Howard would be in the next group.
The elephant in the room is Howard's approaching free-agency status, and while it's hard to imagine the Lakers not paying him, he doesn't have a signed contract. That, and Howard's reluctance to take a major risk with his health, to the point where he might be forced to deal with another long summer of rehab, is what's making Howard cautious.
The Lakers say they won't trade Howard at the deadline. The only way that changes is if Howard says he won't sign with them this summer and forces their hand. Howard only does that if he thinks he relationship with Kobe will never be ideal.
There are some hard, upcoming decisions for the Lakers that'll impact Kobe's final days with the franchise. He's 34 and isn't sure he'll play beyond next season, the last on his contract. It could depend on Howard. You see? They need each other, but can't find a way to make it work.
As this season continues to lurch forward, it's looking grim for the Lakers. They feel they can salvage the season just by reaching the playoffs, but with Gasol out and Howard iffy, can they even get that far?
This Grammy road trip ends Sunday against the Heat. In an ideal David Stern world, this won't be the Lakers' final visit to Miami this season. In reality, though, the closest they'll get to smelling champagne is to hope there's still some on LeBron James' jersey.