EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The Lakers are Kobe Bryant’s team.
Just ask him.
“It’s my team,” said Bryant at the Lakers annual Media Day on Monday, “but I want to make sure that Dwight (Howard), when I retire, this is going to be his (team) and I want to teach him everything I possibly know so that when I step away, this organization can ride on as if I never left.”
Howard has yet to take up the offer but it’s very much on his mind and something he and Bryant have discussed regularly since the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year was acquired from Orlando in a trade during the offseason.
“I’m happy. Me and Kobe have talked plenty of times about it and I think it’ll be great,” Howard said.
But before he makes that choice, before he can take on the responsibility of being the torch bearer for the Lakers going forward, there are some things he admits he wants to learn.
At the top of the list is how to lead.
“It’s a process and I’m willing to go through that process and learn from one of the greatest to ever play the game,” Howard said. “Learning from Kobe, I think this is something that I need for myself, so I can grow as a player and as a person and he’s been through almost every situation possible, on the court and off the court, and I think he can really help me out a lot.”
In Howard, Bryant sees a player after his own heart. The five-time NBA champion sees a player who has a drive to want to be the best, much like himself. He sees a player with the talent, skill, and charisma to be able to be at the forefront of a franchise as polarizing as the Lakers.
It’s the reason in discussions with Lakers Executive Vice President of Player Personnel, Jim Buss, Bryant told him if had the opportunity to be able to acquire Howard to “get him.” With all of the back and forth between Howard and Orlando as well as the constant rumors of him either wanting to or not wanting to come to L.A. in the rear view, Bryant wants to make sure Howard as all the tools needed to allow the Lakers to press on once he decides to retire.
“I think the talks that I’ll have with Dwight are really just about focusing in on his craft,” Bryant said. “He has the determination and the willingness to be the best and he wants to be the best and I certainly can help him with that and I will help him with that.”
Bryant’s demeanor as a leader is more kick in the rear than pat on the back. Howard is aware of that and the challenge it represents. He’s not going to shy away from the wrath that comes with being a teammate of Kobe Bryant.
“I know (he’s) going to be tough on me but I expect that and I want him to do that,” Howard said. “I want to be that guy, so I’ll take all the heat that he’s going to give me because I know at the end of the day that’s going to make me a better player and a better person so I’m looking forward to it.”
In Howard, the Lakers have acquired not only a big presence in the middle, but a big personality. An Alpha-male, if you will. Bryant hasn’t had to share the floor or the locker room with such a player since Shaquille O’Neal. Howard doesn’t see it as a problem at all and dismisses any notion that he and Bryant won’t be able to coexist.
“Kobe’s Kobe and I’m who I am,” Howard said. “I think we’re going to have fun. We all want to win. We’ll be fine.”
Since the trade to come to the Lakers was made official, he’s continued to say all of the right things, which includes noting his willingness to take a step back and follow Bryant’s lead. However, it’s not a position he’s really had to be in during his career.
Bryant, however has. Still he doesn’t see Kobe and Dwight having the same issues as Kobe and Shaq, at least not on the floor, anyway.
“We do different things,” Bryant said. “Having Steve (Nash) helps tremendously. It’s a different dynamic than it was when I was here with Shaq. I had to do something that I naturally don’t do which is be a quarterback, make plays for other people, and score. So, the responsibility of him getting the ball fell on me and it’s like ‘this is not what I do.’
“But here, that’s Steve. Steve’s the quarterback. He has a great system in the Princeton Offense to, kind of, play around with and manipulate and I just slide to my natural spot.”
If the Lakers are going to have success, all of the pieces have to fit together. Not just Bryant and Howard or vice versa.
When the Celtics formed their Big Three, it worked for them immediately and they were able to win an NBA title at the Lakers expense in 2008. For the Miami Heat, it took them nearly three-quarters of the season to develop a rhythm with each other and still that wasn’t enough to bring South Beach a title in year one.
The Heat won it all in year two and enter this season as a favorite of many to repeat despite the lofty acquisitions made by the Lakers.
There is no timetable for how long it takes for a team to mesh. When the Lakers brought in Karl Malone and Gary Payton during the summer of 2003 to join Bryant and O’Neal, it appeared they meshed immediately, winning 18 of their first 21 games, but injuries to Malone put a halt to such progress. By the time they played the Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals, they were all out of sorts.
The jury is out for how long it will take this current group put together by Mitch Kupchak.
“Hopefully sooner than later but whenever it happens, it’ll be the right time,” Howard said. “We don’t want to peak too early but we want to play at a consistent level the whole year.”
Of course, before the Lakers can mesh on the court, Howard has to get healthy. The Lakers announced he won’t be ready to go in the preseason opener on Oct. 7 in Fresno against the Warriors as he continues to recover from back surgery. He says there is no timetable on his return but he’s “getting better every day” and he wants to make sure he’s 100 percent when he does.
What percentage is he and his back currently?
“I don’t have a percentage meter for my back,” Howard joked. “They didn’t make them yet. I think that’s new technology in the iPhone 6. The iPhone 6, they’re coming out with a new technology, you can tell the percentage of your health, whatever it may be, so we got to wait until that comes out.”
Meanwhile, the Lakers and their fans will just wait.