With the Los Angeles Lakers clinging to what may become barren playoff hopes, the demand for sustainable change has never been greater.
Most of us scoffed at Tinseltown's early onset struggles. Natural growing pains were to blame. Injuries and foreign playing styles were a temporary hindrance. The Lakers would inevitably epitomize superstar powerhouses.
Or, you know, maybe not.
Physical afflictions have derailed much of what the Lakers were hoping they had built over the summer, but insufficient chemistry has been the prevailing theme in Los Angeles. And neither will excuse the Lakers for failing to reach the postseason. Injuries and tactical misfits won't even exonerate a failure to contend.
That is what the Lakers signed up for when they had what was considered the paramount of offseasons, not unlike the Miami Heat in 2010.
James' (and Bosh's) arrival in South Beach signified the beginning of dynasty-esque dominance (and conspiracy theories). Together, he and Wade formed the most dynamic of NBA duos, and the Heat were the most feared (and loathed) of anyone in the Association.
Then reality set in. Miami began the 2010-11 campaign just 9-8, and it became increasingly obvious that the Heat wasn't going to run away with anything other than their division. Even after a finals appearance, the masses questioned the faction Pat Riley had built.
Fast-foward to the 2011-12 lockout-truncated campaign, a nightmarish crusade for almost everyone involved. Miami didn't finish with the best record in the league, or even the Eastern Conference (Chicago Bulls), but LeBron and Wade won a championship.
Upon hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy into the air and popping some bubbly, all was forgotten. The struggles, rampant speculation, perpetual doubt—it all vanished. Miami had won the first of many promised championships, and the basketball world was salivating with envy.
But unlike the Heat themselves, that success wasn't built overnight. The results they yielded were the culmination of a process predicated on Wade's sacrifice.
For the Heat to actually win a title, Wade needed to be James' sidekick. Shifting roles on a daily basis wasn't going cut it. And Wade knew it (via Israel Gutierrez of ESPN.com):
I just had some time to sit back and think a lot. I just realized what we're playing for, and what I'm playing for.
LeBron is probably the most talented player we've seen in a while, but how good can we be? Are we going to be good if me and him are both scoring 27 a night? Yeah, we're gonna be good, but it would be too much, 'OK, it's your turn, now it's your turn.'
I wanted to give him the opportunity where he didn't have to think about that. It's kind of like I told him, 'Listen, I'll find my way. Don't worry about me. I'll be there. But you go out and be the player that we want you to be.'
LeBron heeded Wade's advice, won the MVP award and led the Heat to the first of what they hope is many Big Three-induced titles.
Today, nothing has changed. Miami has a host of talents that can take the game over—Wade included—but it's still about James. He's on pace to become the first player in NBA history to average at least 25 points, eight rebounds and seven assists per game while also shooting better than 55 percent from the field.
You listening, Kobe?
So much of the Los Angeles season has been dedicated to role attribution. Bryant has remained steadfast in his refusal to concede the Lakers are Howard's team. Tinseltown's past and future have collided to form the present, establishing a dangerous precedent—one that needs to be reconfigured.
Bryant doesn't have to admit to himself, Howard or anyone else that the Lakers aren't his team. It's unnecessary and, let's be honest, just not true. What he does have to do is consistently recognize the importance of subsidizing the offense.
The Black Mamba understands the importance of facilitating, especially now. He's handed out at least 10 assists nine times this season, more than the previous three seasons combined (eight). He's flirting with triple-doubles on a semi-regular basis, and his 5.9 assists per game are the most he's totaled since 2004-05.
Bryant is still too frequently embracing the perils of hero ball, when statistics suggest he do just the opposite.
Now, it's important to understand that Kobe's penchant for attempted heroics is often the aftermath of his teammates—Howard included—failing to yield the results the Mamba knows they can. It's also imperative to grasp the notion that we're not asking Bryant to renounce his role as a scorer. Wade is still averaging 21-plus points and attempting 16 shots per game.
What we're essentially doing is imploring Kobe to put Dwight before himself, just like Wade did with LeBron.
Bryant is accustomed to carrying the Lakers on his own. It's been that way since Shaquille O'Neal was traded. However, now that he is playing with Howard, he no longer needs to take that same end-all, be-all approach. For the Lakers to win, the offense needs to run through Howard.
Superman is averaging 10.6 shot attempts a night. When he hits his season average and takes 10 or more shots in a game, the Lakers are 26-11. When Kobe hits or exceeds his mark of 20 field-goal attempts, the team is 15-25.
These are coincidental numbers. Thinking that statistics don't tell the whole story in certain situations is sound logic, but ignoring their significance is inane.
Say we bought into the notion that all of Bryant's volume-shooting escapades were the direct result of poor play from his brethren (they're not). Does that make them any more acceptable?
No, not at all. Not even slightly.
If Howard's having an off-shooting night, Kobe needs to have faith in him as an All-Star as a fellow superstar to continue to feed him the ball. Force Howard to shoot through his slumps, like we know Bryant does through his.
They are even better every time those genre of performances coincide with each other.
Bryant has dropped five or more assists in 30 of the 41 games in which Howard has scored at least 15. The Lakers are 23-7 in those instances. And on the seven nights Dwight has posted at least 25 points, Kobe is averaging 7.3 assists
Are we honestly supposed to buy into happenstance here? Or are there more pressing factors at play?
I'm not, because there aren't.
Los Angeles is a winning team when Bryant defers to Howard and everyone else. The Lakers are a more formidable convocation when that conjunctive trust is at play (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com):
“We have guys that will step up if everybody will trust everybody,” D’Antoni said. “The key is when it happens like that on offense, you see the energy on the defensive end. That’s where it comes out, and we were a team tonight and it looked good.”
Cast aside the adage that states statistics don't tell the whole story then. In this case, they do.
The Lakers still need Kobe to score, but they need him to pass as well. Remember, the two are not mutually exclusive. In the 46 games Bryant has had at least five assists, he's topped 20 points in 32 of them. And he knows all this.
Kobe knows that Howard needs the ball more. He knows that the Lakers will win if he defers to the big man. It's now just a matter of knowing that he can't lurch back and forth between roles, just like Wade learned in Miami.
Some nights, the Lakers will need Bryant to score 30 points, but it's every night that they need him to facilitate, to run the offense and get Howard open looks.
"I thought me and him did a good job of trying to communicate and talk, but it was still unnatural because we're both so used to it being our show," Wade said at the end of last season (via Gutierrez).
Like Wade, Los Angeles has been Bryant's stomping ground for his entire career. He didn't have to steal the show, because it was always his. But now he's being asked to share both the ball and the show with someone like Howard, who is also used to being the man in charge.
Partition isn't going to get the Lakers anywhere, though. It hasn't gotten them anywhere of interest or significance. They've been left to dwell in the bottom half of the Western Conference, alongside rebuilding lottery teams.
When will the madness end?
As soon as Kobe becomes the Wade to Howard's LeBron. The Mamba needs to holster his shooting motion and find the seams down low. It's a concept he's not acquainted with, but he's also not familiar with losing. At some point, his congenital need to win must trump his innate desire to shoot consistently.
"Everybody will step up if everybody will trust everybody," D'Antoni said (via McMenamin).
And the Lakers will win as soon as Kobe entrusts Howard with the responsibilities he should have been allocated a long time ago.
Once he does, he'll have done what's best for his team.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, 82games.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
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