EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The first sign of trouble in paradise surfaced Monday when Steve Nash, the newest member of the rock band known as the Lakers, was asked by a breathless TV reporter what he thinks about Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard when he’s home in the evening.
After an awkward silence, Nash came clean.
“I don’t think about those guys at nighttime,” Nash said with a grin that was somewhere between bemused and blushing.
So, there you have it — the first sign that the Lakers, who have Los Angeles back to being ga-ga over them, are doomed to be swallowed up between now and June not by the Thunder or the Heat, but by the usual Hollywood excesses — greed, self-absorption, petulance and lack of commitment.
For nearly two hours, when the new-look, newly reloaded Lakers held their media day, players and coaches were subjected to questions that probed possible cracks that will surely become fissures.
Can Howard and Bryant get along?
Are they too old or frail?
Is the Princeton offense too complicated for them or too unfriendly for Nash?
All fair-enough questions, but in the end they overlook the bottom line in the reconstruction of the Lakers, who are not only set up for right now, but for the future with Howard as the franchise cornerstone:
The Lakers are too smart to fail.
Comparisons between the Lakers and the Heat are sure to pop up all season, just as they did Monday, serving as a cautionary tale of how difficult it is for superstar talent to gel into a team.
But the comparison misses on a couple points. This isn’t just throwing two superstars (LeBron James and Dwyane Wade) and an All-Star (Chris Bosh) together like a fantasy league team and seeing what happens.
The Lakers are a roster full of complementary parts — especially amongst their marquee players — and perhaps just as importantly complementary personalities.
On the court, their games fit together like a puzzle. Howard’s pick-and-roll defense solves a decades-long problem for the Lakers, and his presence around the basket will cover many other defensive deficiencies. Nash’s ability to create shots for others will allow Howard to dive on pick-and-rolls, and should decrease the degree of difficulty for Bryant. Gasol, rejuvenated after last season’s uncertainty, has a like-minded passer in Nash, who is likely to be cognizant of making sure Gasol and Howard get enough touches.
More interesting will be how their personalities meld. The predictable question about ownership of the Lakers was greeted by a predictable answer from Bryant.
“I don’t want to get into the, ‘Well, we share…,'” Bryant said. “No, it’s my team. But I want to make sure that Dwight, when I retire, this is going to be his. 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.”
It’s easy to imagine how that type of patronizing speech would have gone over with Chris Paul, who’s a few months older than Howard. (Probably like a Gasol pat on the head.)
But the truth is that Howard does have a lot to learn. As funny and engaging as Howard can be, he’s also immature and — if last season’s fiasco in Orlando didn’t reveal this — not exactly a sophisticate. (He certainly has that in common with James.) Howard revealed this Monday when he shared a story about Lakers fans’ enthusiasm by relating some interaction he had with “a little Jewish girl.”
If Bryant remains the face — and the focus — of the Lakers, it allows Howard the opportunity to refine himself without the fortunes of the franchise riding on his every move, on and off the court. (This holds until he drops a hint that maybe he won’t re-sign.)
“This is something I need so I can grow as a player and a person,” Howard said. “I know he’s going to be tough on me, but I expect that. I’ll take all that he’s going to give me because it’s going to make me a better player.”
Whether this is genuine will be proven over time. But what is certain is that Howard and Bryant will be surrounded by many other pieces that should make their tasks easier. Metta World Peace, whose offseason training regimen during the lockout revolved around the three-martini lunch, is 18 pounds lighter (255) than he was to start last season.
Nash not only drastically upgrades the point guard position from Ramon Sessions and before that Derek Fisher, but he and Jodie Meeks add much-needed 3-point shooting. Antawn Jamison could replace the punch they lost with Lamar Odom off the bench, and re-signing Jordan Hill gives them an intriguing big man off the bench. Better depth should prevent coach Mike Brown from running his starters into the ground like he did last year.
Bryant said this is the most talented team he has ever been a part of. Presumably, though, there will be points during the season where the sorting out requires heated discussions with strong opinions. But they will not come from players who are concerned with scoring averages, All-Star appearances or max contracts.
They will be from players with high basketball IQs, many of whom have been there and done that.
“We’re all grown men, or grown boys,” Nash said. “We’ve been through this before. I think everyone will understand that our motives are pure. We’re not out here to do anything but win and make the group better. So, if we have to have heart-to-hearts from time to time, if voices are raised, that’s part of being a team and building a team.”
It’s what might be expected from one that has been so intelligently designed.