If it's been hard finding the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference standings this season (ninth, 29-30), it's been even more difficult recognizing two of their biggest stars: Steve Nash and Dwight Howard.
Nash appeared set for the best season of his 16-plus year career. Yes, even better than his two MVP campaigns (2005 and 2006).
He had never played with a collection of talent quite like this. He would be sharing the backcourt with a future first-ballot Hall of Famer in Kobe Bryant.
He had another budding Hall of Famer in the frontcourt (two actually, if you ask former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, according to Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated), and a potentially devastating pick-and-roll partner in Howard, an explosive package of size (6'11", 265 lbs.) and athleticism.
Those expectations only grew when Nash found himself once again paired with coach Mike D'Antoni, the offensive guru who had called the shots during the point guard's MVP efforts.
Yet Nash wasn't tallying transcendent assist numbers, rather a pedestrian 7.1 per game—his lowest average of the 2000s. He was more of an observer than participant, utilizing little more than his three-point threat (career 42.8 percent) while Bryant initiated D'Antoni's sets.
Howard, meanwhile, appeared to be in line for a slight decrease in his scoring numbers after joining a franchise housing more mouths to feed than he'd seen in eight seasons with the Orlando Magic.
But whatever he lost in points, he figured to recoup in reputation with the Lakers' assumed waltz to the franchise's 17th NBA title.
But the happy-go-lucky Howard instead saw his character torn to shreds. The omnipresent smiles were gone, replaced by an emotionless look of bewilderment while questions about his toughness and leadership ability rained down on his massive shoulders.
The first-year teammates butted heads, saving a heated exchange for a nationally televised game against the Miami Heat. According to Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register, this wasn't simply a disagreement over one play but, rather, frustrations boiled over from a season-long struggle for the point guard and center to get on the same page.
But the All-Star break provided the rest that both players needed. And not just because both have battled various ailments throughout the season.
Rather, the five days away from the floor gave the duo a chance to redefine their relationship, to press that mythical reset button that the Lakers had been searching for all year.
According to Ding, Nash said the teammates understood the importance of coming together in L.A.'s uphill climb to the postseason.
We talked coming out of the All-Star break that he and I have really got to find a way to be a tandem. He has to find ways to free me up, and therefore I am going to find ways to free him up -- and really become a team and a tandem together, put a lot of pressure on the defense and make the game easier for our teammates. We are going to work at it.
It's tempting to call the team's recent success (4-1 since the All-Star break) as the reason behind the duo's improvement. But that success may have been nothing more than a by-product of the pair's willingness to work together.
Nash has wrestled back some of the distributing duties from Bryant, leading the team in assists in three of those five games. When Bryant's taken over, Nash has provided the long-range shots needed to make D'Antoni's system go (61.5 three-point percentage in his last five, via basketball-reference.com).
Howard has committed himself to the defensive end regardless of his touches, averaging 13.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks over that stretch (via basketball-reference.com). On the offensive side of the floor, "Superman" has leveled guards with bone-jarring screens and shown more explosiveness in his rolls to the basket than he had all season.
These players need each other to find success.
Nash has been a defensive liability throughout his career, and he hasn't aged well on that end. With the influx of hyper-athletic point guards in today's NBA, he needs an intimidating presence behind him. And even with a bad back and a hobbled shoulder, Howard's as intimidating as it gets.
Offensively, it's incumbent on Howard to lean on Nash for an efficient performance. Howard's not a go-to scorer out of post isolations, and at this stage in his career, it's unlikely he'll ever be one. But he's still a unique weapon, and a dangerous one at that, with Nash more than capable of finding him en route to the basket.
Bryant has been masterful this season, deservedly entrenched in MVP discussions regardless of the team's record. But L.A. has proven that it takes more than one player to find consistent success, no matter how talented that one player may be.
Bryant may be the one credited for leading the Lakers to the postseason if they find their way there. But's an impossible journey for him to guide without Howard and Nash wreaking havoc. Together.
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