Transfer of power requires a Great Man
Tucked away in the mess that was Dwight Howard‘s unhappy tenure in Los Angeles was another relevant, interesting truth about the Lakers, their future and the nature of prolonged greatness in the NBA.
Any team hoping for sustained dominance is best served with a star able to turn his franchise over to someone else. And Kobe — along with his Lakers — is particularly ill-equipped for this transfer of power.
Dwight Howard certainly didn’t make it easy. He was difficult, immature and uncomfortable during his time in Los Angeles. But that’s not the point. The point is the Lakers believed him to be the cornerstone of the future, he wanted to be treated like it early and often, and Kobe Bryant would have none of it.
Thing is, this isn’t on Kobe, at least not entirely. It’s not entirely on Dwight, either.
This glaring issue is that one of the hardest things to do in sports — coaxing one star to turn over the soul and face of his team to another player — requires an off-court Great Man to make it happen.
The proof for this lies in the NBA’s most recent history.
Over the past 15 years, three teams have won 11 of the NBA’s championships: The Los Angeles Lakers (5), the San Antonio Spurs (3) and the Miami Heat (3). Each of those teams also made another Finals but lost, with the Lakers doing that twice.
And each of those teams had a transference of power from one star to another over this long stretch of sustained excellence. It was a successful fact that linked each organization … until Kobe did all he could to help Dwight make an exit for Houston.
Now the Lakers are a team with a murky future betting on a complete, 2014 free-agency-driven reboot. And the Heat and Spurs remain contenders, if not favorites, in their conferences.
This isn’t a criticism of Kobe. A player like Kobe Bryant — or Dwyane Wade, or Tim Duncan — would and should guard his team’s spirit and his own role shepherding it relentlessly. There is pride involved. Ego. The creeping in of age. The fear of retirement. That burn to compete, to dominate, that athletes must hone and celebrate. And the doubt that a younger man may not honor the things you have honored as truly or as protectively as you have.
This is where a Great Man must come in. In Miami, one of the critical stories of that team’s recent success has been how Dwyane Wade ceded the team to LeBron James, and why. LeBron is not the kind of player to seize such a thing; Wade is not the type to happily give it up; and Erik Spoelstra, while a great coach, was a young one not nearly with the gravitas to force or finesse the issue.
Good thing for the Heat Pat Riley was there.
There to take Spoelstra red wine late at night and calm the waters around his young coach when things got tough. There to protect his protege in the same way, meaning his stars had to take responsibility rather than turn their early angst on their head coach. There to be a force — a living legend — capable of helping facilitate a handoff of power from Wade to LeBron that was critical in their success.
Wade was already a one-time champion (thanks, in part, to Riley negotiating a similar detente between a young Wade and a hard-to-manage Shaquille O’Neal) when he and LeBron tried to share alpha dog status that first year. That didn’t work. He’s now a three-time champion because he turned the team over to LeBron. That never happens without the presence of Pat Riley.
Same goes for the Spurs, at least in their ability to return to the Finals and come within a shot (or a missed shot) of beating the Heat this season. Tim Duncan will be remembered as one of the greatest players of all time, but because Gregg Popovich was there, he was able to seamlessly turn that team over to Tony Parker. Pop went so far as to say that it was not Duncan’s team. There was no question or dissension. Just an NBA Finals appearance.
That’s because, while Popovich may intimidate sideline reporters and other media, with players he garners deep, deep respect. He’s one of the few people who could help Duncan, despite the presence of David Robinson, emerge as a young leader of a championship team and then later guide the transition from Duncan to Parker and of Manu Ginobili from starter to sixth man.
The Lakers, too, had this special gift — a Great Man worthy of the task of managing real, historic greatness. In fact, they had two. Phil Jackson’s ability to ease egos and make men who do not like one another win together (Shaq-Kobe is a pretty glaring example) certainly would have helped Kobe see why, and how, to invest in beginning the handoff to Dwight.
That Dwight made it hard — or maybe even impossible — from Kobe’s point of view isn’t the point. The point is all talent must be successfully managed, and with the greatest of talent you need the greatest of managers to do it.
But it wasn’t just Phil. Dr. Jerry Buss was as much of a Great Man as the NBA has produced. Before that Dos Equis guy became "The Most Interesting Man In The World," Dr. Buss was the most interesting man in the league. Women. Titles. Showtime. Confidence. Swagger. Fun. Magic. Shaq. Kobe. Ring after ring. No player was greater than the owner.
Because of that, we know now, he was able to talk to Kobe one-on-one the year Black Mamba wanted out of Lakerland. Dr. Buss alone could charm that snake. He alone — his greatness, his reach, his ability to manage one of the greatest of all time — made that possible. Kobe remained a Laker, and more championships followed.
Now, however, Dr. Buss is gone and Phil is in some strange political purgatory. And so Kobe, disgusted by what he saw in Dwight Howard, could not be coaxed into doing the hardest thing there is to do: Turn over a team to another. Howard’s questionable leadership skills only underscore how much the Lakers miss someone able to help that handoff happen.
This is a new NBA, where a clustering of stars is required for championship hopes. That’s only going to exacerbate the need to be able to get one star player to eventually play second fiddle to another.
Advantage, then, to the teams who still have Great Men able to make such a thing happen.
Which means the Lakers, unless Phil returns or Jim Buss grows into a man much like his dad, are missing another crucial ingredient for greatness.