Well, it’s official. The trade deadline came and passed in Los Angeles and Dwight Howard is still a member of the Lakers. It’s not that big of a surprise, really, since Mitch Kupchak denied the possibility of trading Howard about 174 times in the last 72 hours before the deadline. But in reality, it could be a sign of something bigger. And that could be something that many people aren’t expecting, and certainly aren’t saying.
The Lakers need to commit to Dwight Howard. And by refusing to trade him, they have begun that process.
But committing to a player, especially one as fickle as Howard, involves much more than just refusing to trade him 55 games into his tenure with the team. It involves informing him that in the near future, this will be his team. His. Not anybody else’s.
And that’s where the Lakers come across a major problem. Right now, it’s not Dwight’s team. In fact, it’s anything but.
One of the major problems with Howard’s time in Los Angeles so far has been the obvious clashing of styles between himself and Kobe Bryant. You know, the Lakers’ other All-Star player. The guy that can do no wrong in the eyes of most fans. The guy that is responsible for more Laker fans than anybody on the planet not named Magic Johnson. For many people, there’s no difference between Kobe and the Lakers. The two are synonymous. And that’s a major problem if you’re the team’s front office.
But it can’t be.
It’s almost appropriate that this comes on the heels of losing Jerry Buss. Of course the loss of Dr. Buss was a tragedy, and I would never insinuate otherwise, but one of the reasons Buss’ legend will live long after he’s gone is his ability to make difficult decisions with the long-term stakes of the team on the line. His ability to put personal feelings aside, and do what was best for the team in the long run rather than become enamored by the present was one of his biggest assets. And it allowed the Lakers to sustain an absurd level of success while Dr. Buss was pulling the strings.
Now, however, things are different. There’s a different JB running the show in Los Angeles, and while many fans unjustly have made their minds up about Jim, he’s still an unproven entity that could go either way. But he doesn’t have the luxury of waiting very long to make his first major decision. With the summer rapidly approaching, the team is facing an enormous question. A question whose answer will dictate the next 5-10 years of basketball in Los Angeles.
Dwight Howard or Kobe Bryant?
Now, in a perfect world things would resolve and Bryant and Howard would come together to form a dynamic duo and lead the Lakers to prominence. But after a 26-29 start and the inability to go two weeks without some new report of the feud between Bryant and Howard bubbling up, it’s looking increasingly apparent that this isn’t much more than a pipe dream of the uninformed.
For most people the answer here is simple. As I mentioned above, the connection between Bryant and the Lakers organization is indistinguishable for most. But if Jim Buss, Mitch Kupchak and the rest of the team’s front office wants to ensure the team’s success on a championship level in the long-term future the choice is abundantly clear.
The team can go about this a couple different ways, but ultimately it means informing Howard behind closed doors that they’re going to move away from Bryant. Which isn’t going to be easy to do. First of all, can Los Angeles trust Howard to keep his mouth shut about that information if they do give it to him? Because L.A. would have to tell this to Howard this summer, before he bolts in free agency. The meeting would involve convincing Howard to sign a long-term deal with the knowledge that once Kobe’s contract is up at the end of 2013-14, the team wouldn’t pursue bringing him back.
This is no easy task, but ultimately it’s something that must be done.
And it’s been done before.
Let’s take a few minutes and hop into the NBA Delorean, set the time circuits for 2004 and find some open road that will let us reach 88 MPH. After the Lakers flamed out against the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals, it was evident that changes were going to be made. Karl Malone and Gary Payton weren’t going to be around for the future, and their shot at glory in Los Angeles was brazenly snatched from them by Chauncey Billups and a couple guys named Wallace. But other than aging veterans that hadn’t lived up to expectations in Hollywood (sound familiar?), there was a bigger problem facing the L.A. front office.
The feud between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal had reached a boiling point. It had become evident that the two couldn’t coexist heading into the future. When you compounded that knowledge with the fact that O’Neal wanted more money than Buss was willing to give a 31-year-old center that never seemed to come into camp healthy and/or in shape. But ultimately Dr. Buss and the Lakers decided that the best business plan was to invest in the younger player, even if that meant spending a couple years at the bottom. And their decision paid off.
Los Angeles traded Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat on July 14, 2004, before locking up Bryant to a long-term deal that would make him the face of the Lakers moving forward. At the time the move was highly criticized. The next season, when Shaq won a ring with the Heat, the move was criticized even further. People began to say things like “Kobe can’t win without Shaq.” Or, “the Lakers should have traded Kobe and kept O’Neal.”
But now? People are singing a very different tune. And for good reason.