Sam Amick, USA TODAY Sports
LOS ANGELES – There was a missing piece to the puzzle Kobe Bryant was putting together late Friday night.
Long after the Lakers had downed Utah 102-84 to break their four-game losing streak and remind the masses of the potential they still have, their resident ruler was explaining the confrontational nature of his team's culture and why it was a good thing that they were put together this way. He mentioned how Metta World Peace jumped all over Darius Morris at one point of the game, and how even Steve Nash came right back at Bryant when he confronted him about not taking a particular shot. No nonsense. No pulled punches. No secrets.
"That's just how it should be," he had told reporters afterward. "Yeah, shoot the (expletive). What the (expletive) you doing? You know?...This is what it is, and this is how it should be and this is how it will be."
But five days after the team meetingthat seemed to embody this candid and caustic style that Bryant has employed for so long, it was impossible not to notice the omission of Dwight Howard from the conversation. The Lakers center doesn't fit into this part of the Lakers picture, his personality more passive-aggressive than direct and the question remaining about whether the free-agent-to-be is prepared to play this game with Bryant beyond this season.
Bryant doesn't know how this will end any more than anyone else, as Howard could be dealt before the Feb. 21 deadline if it turns out he has a wandering eye and the Lakers change their stance that's he's untouchable. But so long as he's here, Bryant made clear, this is the way his team will be led.
"It's a matter of learning (for Howard)," Bryant told USA TODAY Sports as he exited Staples Center. "What I try to tell him is that it's not necessarily about what you (want), how you are as a person, or what's comfortable for you. It's really about what's going to help elevate us.
"So for us to have a team that's confrontational and on edge brings out the competitive spirit of everybody else, you know what I'm saying? If everybody is just relaxed and happy go lucky and this that and the other, then that's the personality we'll have as a team. And then you run into a team that's a confrontational team, and it's like a bus."
Bryant wouldn't feel this way if he hadn't been run over a bus like that before.
"That's what happened to us in 2008," he continued. "Everything was really easy for us, real smooth and this that and the other. Everybody liked each other. And then we got to the Finals (against Boston), and we ran into a bus. The Celtics – those (expletives) just beat the (expletive) out of us (in six games)."
This is the root of the Bryant-Howard quandary. Independent of personality and based solely on talent, they have all the makings of a dynamic duo that could win titles together just like Bryant did with Shaquille O'Neal. Add in Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, and Metta World Peace, and some of the brightest minds in the game were convinced entering the season that they were shoe-ins to win it all.
But Bryant is one of the fiercest and least-forgiving players in the game, the conviction of his beliefs based not only on the five championships that still give him the final say in these parts but also the failures that shaped him. Howard is notoriously benign and constantly conflicted, more than ever now that the familiar voices in his complicated camp are speaking up yet again about the chaos that surrounds him.
They are The Odd Couple without the punchlines or the laugh track, though Bryant doesn't see their pairing as problematic. Asked if he still believed he could win a championship with Howard, he said, "Yeah, for sure." Unrelenting and sure as always, he's trying to teach Howard a lesson he may not want to learn.
"It's a process for him," Bryant said. "He wants to be one of the greats of all time, and to do that you have to learn from the greats of all time – be it Bill Russell, be it Shaq. I mean Shaq was a moody, temperamental dude. So if you watch all the big men who have come before, you start to see a common denominator.
"Wilt (Chamberlain), God bless him, was phenomenal, but he didn't have (the same edge). Russell and (those) guys win repetitive – (Michael) Jordan, Magic (Johnson), myself. You've got a little (a-hole) in you. I want (Howard) to be great, so I'm trying to push him."
He did just that in the Monday meeting, though it's unclear to what degree. While Bryant acknowledged that the meeting took place, he disputed his part in it.
"I never asked him (if he disliked playing alongside Bryant)," Bryant said. "I never asked him that."
So, Bryant was asked, what did he say?
"It's private; it's private," he said. "But I never asked him that, so I'm not quite sure where that came from. That's not in my personality to ask somebody that (laughs).
"It was nothing of that sort. If you talk to Dwight, ask Pau, ask Steve Nash and those guys – I never said that. I'm too old to be lying about that type of (expletive). I don't give a (expletive)."
He does care about saving this season, though, and the Lakers (18-25) may still survive considering they're just four games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Yet beyond the clash of cultures and the conversation about what Howard must do to meet this moment, Friday's win offered a glimpse of how these Lakers might look from here on out.
A concerted effort to feed Howard in the paint early paid off on both ends throughout, as he finished with 17 points, 13 rebounds, two blocks and one turnover after returning from the shoulder injury that took him out of Wednesday's loss at Memphis. Bryant – who had shot just 35.3% in the previous four games while averaging 25.5 shots – hit seven of 10 while turning his most well-rounded night of the season (14 points, a season-high 14 assists and nine rebounds).
For a night, this purple-and-gold puzzle became a picture. And Howard, Bryant insisted, remained in it.
"I don' t know what the future holds," Bryant said. "I don't know if (Howard will be traded)…But I know that as long as he's here, I'm going to continue to help him, mentor him, help him be great. That's all I can do. I'm a problem solver. I try to figure things out, come hell or high water."
Edited by Tensai, January 26, 2013 - 05:02 AM.