The Los Angeles Lakers resurgence, Take 53.
For what seems like the umpteenth time this season, Hollywood's finest appear to be on the path to revival. But for what is the first time all year, their self-inflicted change appears ready to stick, courtesy of Kobe Bryant.
Among Los Angeles' greatest pitfalls was the deteriorating or rather, non-existent relationship between Bryant and Dwight Howard. Save for a defensive breakdown that left Howard screaming at the Black Mamba, the two appeared indifferent toward one another's presence.
Afterward, Howard publicly conveyed (via Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register) his distaste for what was taking place in Lakerland:
Howard was unhappy after getting just five field-goal attempts in the loss, rarely getting the ball early in the game.
"Look at the stat sheet," Howard said. "Look at the stat sheet."
Asked how he can get more shots, Howard said: "It's simple. Play inside-out."
Howard's sentiments came on a night when he received fewer shots than both Metta World Peace and Earl Clark, and immediately following a 7-of-22 showing from Bryant himself. Thus, the message was clear: Kobe had the ball and Dwight wanted it.
On the heels of such displeasure, Bryant and Howard appeared to be at a crossroads and the Lakers' immediate future was in jeopardy. Yet that was only the beginning.
Per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, the Lakers held a team meeting to help clear the air, one that culminated in an unsettling confrontation between Bryant and Howard:
They held a clear-the-air team meeting before Wednesday morning's shoot-around, with Kobe Bryant very directly asking Dwight Howard if he disliked playing with the long-time Lakers star.
Bryant also spoke up, acknowledging he could be "hard to play with" and asking Howard if that bothered him.
Howard's answer was unclear, though he did not engage Bryant in nearly as vocal a manner as Bryant engaged him.
Howard's failure to answer a very pointed question from Bryant didn't help matters. His equivocation was considered an affirmation of his desire to play elsewhere or, at the very least, away from Bryant.
By now, the Lakers' dynamic was not only a failure, but its remains could not even be salvaged. They would be forced to blow it up or run the risk of missing the playoffs and then losing Howard over the summer.
But then, something changed; Kobe changed.
Los Angeles ended its string of apathetic basketball with a virulent win over the Utah Jazz and a gut-check victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. In those games, Bryant averaged 17.5 points, more than 10 below his season average of 28.7. He also combined for just 22 shots, which is just about what he usually hoists up per game (21.6).
Just as noteworthy, Bryant dropped 14 dimes in each of those two contests. A pair of out-of-body performances saw Kobe run the offense as a catalyst, not a benefactor. For two straight bouts, he deferred with passion.
And as the Mamba himself admitted (via J.A. Adande of ESPNLosAngeles.com) after the Lakers' win over the Thunder, he suited up with the intent to facilitate:
"We're a team that posts the ball," is how Bryant described the Lakers' newfound identity. "We play inside-out."
Music to Howard's disproportionate ears would be the only way to describe Kobe's depiction of Los Angeles' identity.
This wasn't a Bryant asserting that the offense must run through him or that the team needed him to heave 20 or more shots toward the rim per game. Instead, he was readily acknowledging the ball will be put in the hands of Howard (and Pau Gasol) first, that the offense would run through the post before the perimeter.
Clearly, Bryant had come to accept and subsequently embrace Howard's presence. And he was not alone in his concession.
Howard himself has made some admissions of his own. Knowing that the ball runs through the paint is bound to satisfy him, but he combined for just 19 shots in the Lakers' two most recent victories. Averaging fewer than 10 attempts per game isn't exactly what Howard had in mind. It was actually what he was originally complaining about.
Still, per Ken Berger of CBSSports.com, Howard divulged that he and Bryant now have an understanding:
"We were two big dogs and we were bumping heads," Howard said. "But instead of us bumping heads, we need to do things to lead this team. Offensively, he's going to lead our team and on the defensive end, that's my job. So we all have different roles, but we all have one common goal: We have to be together in order for us to succeed.
"We both want to win," Howard said. "I understand what he wants; he understands what I want. And in order for us to get it together, we have to be on the same page and we have to think as one and be one on the court. That took some time, but we're getting better at it."
That a medium has been reached despite Howard's number of shots not having increased is incredible. It's also a confirmation that the reported clash was not a step toward implosion, but resolution.
Howard himself admitted (via Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News) as much once again:
"I love it," Howard said. "That's something we needed. A lot of times we have a lot of guys come together and nobody wants to step on anybody's toes. We want to win. In order for us to win, we have to pull the best out of each other every night."
"We all know Kobe is the first option," Howard said. "Whoever scores after that doesn't matter."
Resolving what became a problematic affiliation between Bryant and Howard wasn't about the former taking fewer shots and the latter receiving more. It was about reaching a mutual understanding.
Through Kobe's willingness to distribute the basketball, to the run the offense through the post, he has acknowledged not just the importance of his teammates, but his trust in them. He and Howard weren't going anywhere until he consented to the big man's unconditional importance.
And it's potential wouldn't be salvaged without Howard's comprehension of what Kobe still means to this convocation, either.
His admittance that Bryant remains the "first option" is a necessary sacrifice. The success of superteams is predicated on compromise, and Howard and Kobe have now done just that—accommodate one another.
The way Kobe was shooting, you'd have guessed he was still playing alongside Smush Parker and Kwame Brown. And the way Howard was complaining, you'd think he forgot he came to Hollywood knowing he was going to be the second offensive option; you'd think he was still in Orlando.
So yeah, Bryant is helping usher in the Howard era for Los Angeles, and Howard is assisting his teammate's quest to stay at the top of his game.
More importantly, though, they're both (finally) embracing their time together; they're beginning to make the most of what was conceived to be a formidable pairing.
"I was probably born a scorer," Bryant said (via Medina), "but I was made a winner."
Just as Kobe and Howard finally seem to have been made to play in unison.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.