Kobe’s ego is Lakers’ big problem

The return of Pau Gasol and Steve Nash to the lineup is likely to mask most, if not all, the symptoms afflicting the underachieving Los Angeles Lakers. But the perennial all-stars will do nothing to address the disease lurking deep inside the foundation of the Lakers, the malady that will prevent the high-priced collection of veterans from getting past the Thunder, Spurs or even the Grizzlies come playoff time.

The disease isn’t bungling, overmatched executive vice president Jim Buss. It’s not bungling, overmatched coach Mike D’Antoni.

The root cause of the Lakers’ dysfunction has been consistent for 15 years. It is Kobe Bryant’s ego, his desperate pursuit of Michael Jordan’s legacy. L.A.’s Dwight Howard experiment is going to explode and implode in spectacular fashion unless someone in the Lakers organization is bold enough to kill Kobe’s Michael Jordan avatar so that Howard’s Bill Russell avatar can emerge and lead the Lakers.

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The wrong player is driving the Lakers. Dwight Howard is the second-most talented player in the league. He’s the single-most gifted defensive player the NBA has seen since Bill Russell. On a properly functioning, championship-chasing team, Howard cannot be a sidekick, a No. 2, Scottie Pippen. Can’t happen. The Heat tried it with LeBron James in Year 1 of the Big Three, and we know how that ended. Dwyane Wade is an awesome basketball player and a terrific leader, but he had to surrender the soul of the Heat to LeBron in order for the Heat to win a title.

Kobe has to let go and let D12. Has to.

Kobe has to accept that he is not the 34-year-old Michael Jordan. You see, at 34 Jordan was taking his final victory lap in Chicago, completing his second three-peat, securing his sixth title, winning his fifth MVP award and 10th scoring title. Kobe wants to duplicate that feat. He’s putting up MVP-like numbers. He leads the league in scoring. He’s shooting a career-high 47.8 percent from the field. He’s averaging five rebounds and five assists. He’s knocking down 38 percent of his 3-pointers. Oh, the numbers look great. The results? The Lakers stink.

You can blame that on the injuries to Gasol and Nash. You can blame it on the incompetence of D’Antoni.

I blame Kobe. He’s the guy stopping Howard from eating. Kobe is the guy giving Howard room to lose himself in his immaturity and hide. Here’s what Kobe has never understood about the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s an organization built to house and nurture giants. From George Mikan to Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers function best when the once-in-a-generation big man the organization acquires is allowed to be the man of the house.

Kobe emasculates his big men. Andrew Bynum politely admitted this week that Kobe stunted his growth.

“I think Dwight is a great player, but he’s going to have to get accustomed to playing with Kobe and not touching the ball every single play,” Bynum said.

The problem is deeper than touches. It’s a mentality that a big man must have in order to lead his team. Dwight Howard must enter every NBA arena with this mindset: “If I don’t hunt and kill, no one eats tonight.”

That’s Kobe’s mindset. But at 34, having played 1,186 regular-season games and 220 playoff games, Kobe doesn’t hunt and kill as effectively as Howard. Kobe isn’t the same as a 34-year-old Jordan. At this stage in his career, Jordan had played 873 regular-season games and 158 playoff games. Jordan was still a force of nature. Don’t get fooled by Kobe’s numbers. He’s not Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony, and Kobe damn sure isn’t LeBron James.

James, Durant and Melo can impose their will on the opposition. Over the course of a seven-game playoff series, they can mentally bludgeon an opponent into submission. We saw James do it to the Pacers and the Celtics in last year’s playoffs. Kobe is smart. He can be efficient. But he’s trying too hard right now. That’s why he leads the league in turnovers with 97. Kobe’s days of imposing his will in a playoff series are over. Howard’s days should just be beginning.

But Kobe’s ego is in the way. Howard can’t be the man of the house with Kobe sitting at the head of the table eating the biggest plate of food. As long as everything revolves around Kobe, as long as Kobe is on TV sitting across from Stephen A. Smith speaking in hushed, dark tones about the state of the Lakers, Howard gets to hide, gets to feel like the Lakers family can eat regardless of whether he chooses to hunt or not.

Kobe needs to fall back. He’s Dr. J right now and he needs to let Dwight Howard be Moses Malone. That does not mean turn the offense over to Howard. It means building a strategy and philosophy that revolves around Howard’s many gifts, which are mostly at the defensive end (and make the hiring of D’Antoni even more ridiculous). It means forcing Howard to mentally and verbally take full responsibility for the success of the team.

Howard is immature. We know that. We watched him in Orlando. Put some pressure on his ass. Make Howard explain why this team is underachieving.

I know this column will appear to many as hatred of Kobe. I don’t hate Kobe. He’s a wonderful player and terrific competitor. He simply has to make the mental adjustment that Dwyane Wade made last season. Come May and June, the Lakers are going as far as Dwight Howard can take them. Nash and Gasol might help the Lakers recover and get into the playoffs. And Kobe is certainly capable of continuing to put up big numbers.

But the Lakers are not winning a title if their second-best player continues to stunt the growth of their best player.