Breaking Down the Chemistry Hurdles New-Look L.A. Lakers Must Overcome to Thrive
In today's NBA, where the scientific method—in the form of advanced statistical analysis—is quickly gaining a foothold in front offices from sea to shining sea, chemistry (ironically enough) tends to go by the wayside.
I'm not talking about the sort of chemistry that made Walter White piles upon piles of dirty money; the sort where compounds react to one another in (mostly) predictable ways.
Rather, I'm talking about human chemistry of the unpredictable sort with which the Los Angeles Lakers will have to concern themselves this season now that the personalities of Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison have been added to the already-volatile core of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace.
Unfortunately for Lakers head coach Mike Brown, there are no easy solutions on Synergy Sports that might aide him in turning this "ragtag" bunch of All-Stars into the title contender that everyone's pegged them for on paper. Only people skills and the proper alignment of roles with personal archetypes can keep this glorious experiment from devolving into a freak show.
Not that it necessarily would if left to its own devices. Not even close.
For all of his grating, under-the-bus-throwing, public criticizing and generally harsh communicating, Kobe is a leader first and foremost. He's among the most intelligent players in the NBA and fully understands what it takes to win at the highest level.
Even if his more-than-just-occasional ball-hogging would suggest otherwise.
His supreme sense of self-confidence can be both his greatest strength and his most glaring weakness. The Black Mamba holds himself to the highest standard and, in turn, expects his teammates to measure up and/or fall in line behind him.
That part of Kobe's personality allegedly came to the fore during a phone call between the Mamba and Dwight Howard ahead of the 2012 trade deadline.
According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Bryant told Howard, who aspired to be the first offensive option on a championship-caliber club, that he'd likely be the third option on offense in LA, behind himself and Pau Gasol and would be better suited to committing his energy to defending and rebounding instead.
Kobe wasn't necessarily wrong to suggest such a role for Howard—after all, Bryant and Gasol are already terrific offensive players, while Howard's obvious strengths are on the boards and in the paint on the defensive end.
But the incident itself speaks, at least in part, to Kobe's particular method of communication. At the age of 34, the Mamba speaks honestly, often brutally so, and isn't one to apologize for it.
That style of leadership may or may not work so well for a guy like Howard, who thus far, has shown that, more than anything, he just wants to be liked, if not loved, by everyone. On the one hand, the fact that Bryant cares so little about outside criticism and doesn't pull his punches in the locker room could alienate Howard and his notoriously sensitive ego.
On the other hand, Superman might fall for Kobe's "alpha dog" act and try his darndest to find his way into the Mamba's good graces. Perhaps Howard will be motivated by Bryant's goading to take his game to another level and learn what it takes to be a champion.
Or better yet, maybe Kobe will take the 26-year-old center under his proverbial wing and nurture him...or not.
Whatever the case may be, Kobe won't be the only veteran voice on blast in the Staples Center this season. He'll be joined by the 38-year-old Steve Nash, who Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard described in his book The Art of a Beautiful Game as "an assimilator," which is to say:
"He sees the sacred duty of the point guard as 'to never lose the trust of your teammates and maintain a sense of team unity.'"
Ballard goes on to write of Nash:
"...perhaps the secret to being a great point guard involves something as simple as wanting to be liked. Just as Kobe Bryant would not make a good point guard because he doesn't give a damn what people think of him, Nash is successful because he does. 'Of course that helps me as a point guard, having those qualities," Nash says, nodding. 'Wanting everyone to have a good time, wanting everyone to feel good about themselves, the assist thing, wanting to set up my teammates.'"
The dichotomy that Ballard sets up between an aloof Kobe and a concerned Nash could work well for the Lakers, particularly with sensitive souls like Dwight and Pau on the roster. Both future Hall-of-Famers are smart and savvy enough to understand that one hand washes the other, both on and off the court.
That is, Nash and Bryant would be well-served to establish a sort of good cop-bad cop dynamic in the Lakers locker room. Kobe's job would be to break teammates down, as he's been known to do, while Nash's would be to build them back up with kindness and encouragement.
Much of the Lakers' positive leadership was lost when GM Mitch Kupchak sent Derek Fisher packing at the trade deadline. That left Kobe to fill a void that wasn't exactly his cup o' tea.
Nash, though, can not only outsize Fisher's shoes at point guard, but also more than make up for his place in the team's culture.
Gasol, for his part, should be happy just to be in a Lakers uniform. He spent much of last season distracted by trade rumors in the wake of the nixed Chris Paul trade and couldn't completely count on his continued LA residency until the Dwight deal was announced and his name wasn't mentioned in it.
Howard's expected absence early in the season, as he recovers from back surgery, could also work wonders with Gasol's confidence. He'll have the middle of the floor to himself for a time, and with it, the opportunity to prove—to himself as much as to everyone else—that he's still an All-Star at power forward and a player deserving of touches in the post.
The very same touches that he enjoyed with Spain at the 2012 London Olympics, and the ones that were designated for Andrew Bynum last season.
As for Antawn Jamison and Metta World Peace—former All-Stars themselves—they should be of little chemical concern so long as the balances in their brains remain steady, more or less.
Jamison has long been one of the NBA's better citizens, even during his time with the Washington Wizards, when teammate Gilbert Arenas plunged the organization into turmoil with his flagrant gun play. He could've signed for more money with his hometown Charlotte Bobcats, but chose a deal for the veteran's minimum with the Lakers and the chance to win a championship that comes with it.
Mind you, he did all this without the outward recruitment of anyone in the organization. Clearly, Jamison wants to be in LA, and as such, it'd be a shock if he did anything to jeopardize his own mission, intentionally or otherwise.
MWP, meanwhile, may be crazy, but he wouldn't likely arm himself on the job, if only because his arms are dangerous enough as is. He's a ticking time bomb, but one who's pledged his personal fealty to Kobe and who shares a strong relationship with Mike Brown. If he comes into the season with his mind and body in proper shape, he won't (or shouldn't) be too much of a distraction.
And even if he is, and even if the entire project appears to be coming apart at the seams at times, the Lakers should be fine.
Why? Because they've always been a circus—at least since Kobe came to town in 1996—and will be so long as they play in LA and employ some of the league's biggest stars.
They won three titles with Kobe and Shaquille O'Neal feuding like school children, and might've brought home a fourth had Karl Malone not injured his knee and the infighting not become so incredibly venomous in 2003-04.
Just a few years later, they went from rebuilding around an unhappy Mamba to making three straight Finals and winning two titles.
Which Laker will be the biggest chemistry concern this season?
This summer, GM Mitch Kupchak transformed a fading also-ran to a champion-on-paper with the flip of a Bynum, a package of draft picks and a slew of other spare parts. To be sure, those expectations come with immense pressure, more than the Lakers endured last season.
But on the whole, it's nothing new for the Lakers. If anything, the current pressure cooker more closely resembles business as usual in Laker Land.
As in, winning games, whether the players and coaches get along around the clock or not. For the Lakers, talent overcomes chemistry issues more often than not.
That figures to be the case with this latest edition, though with an older, wiser Kobe, a motivated Dwight, a steady-handed Steve Nash and a settled-down Gasol, concerns about chemistry may well wind up on the backburner on their own.
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