LA Lakers: Kobe Bryant Can Still Be a Top-5 Player, with Dwight Howard's Help
When the trade that brought Dwight Howard to Los Angeles was first announced, some analysts immediately began to question how Kobe Bryant would impact Howard's experience as a Laker, but Howard's impact on Bryant may be just as interesting.
According to some reports, a potential relationship between Bryant and Howard seemed doomed from the start since D12 was unwilling to accept being relegated to a third wheel behind Bryant and Pau Gasol, but it seems that hurdle has been cleared.
At least, if you take Howard's introductory interview at face value.
There was no hint of a rift or tension between Howard and Bryant during the former's first venture behind the microphone as a Laker, and while his interview was filled with humor, there is nothing funny about the Lakers' task in 2013.
General manager Mitch Kupchak has built the 2012-13 Lakers into a team that should theoretically compete for an NBA championship immediately, but much of that hinges on how quickly the team's individual superstars can become a cohesive unit.
Point guard Steve Nash will be mostly responsible for establishing chemistry and making sure his teammates get enough touches, but the Lakers' title hopes will likely come down to the performance of the team's two biggest stars.
Howard and Bryant are both considered to be among the top 10 players in the NBA, but they could each be top 5 players by the end of the season if they are willing to make the necessary sacrifices in their respective games.
Howard already is one of the league's top five players, and where Bryant ranks is a highly subjective matter, but to rate him at the bottom of that elite tier or just outside of it is a fair assessment.
Many people feel that LeBron James and Kevin Durant have clearly surpassed Bryant as a player, and I have heard Kobe mentioned as no more than the NBA's eighth-best player behind stars such as Chris Paul, Dirk Nowitzki and even Derrick Rose.
A season playing beside Howard can certainly change that perception.
Bryant's ability to instill focus, desire and purpose into Howard will do wonders for the Lakers' chances of reaching the NBA Finals, but if Howard does accept Bryant's wisdom, the benefits for the Lakers, and specifically Bryant, will be much more tangible.
The days of Bryant taking 30 shots per game should be history when you consider the talent surrounding him, and while Bryant's shooting volume will decrease, his field goal percentage and assists totals should rise with Howard in the paint.
Bryant should see a lot more open looks from the perimeter, and most opponents will be reluctant to double him for fear of being eaten alive in the post by Howard and Gasol.
Former Lakers center Andrew Bynum commanded attention from the opposition as well, but his tendency to camp in the lane made it much easier to defend him with one player.
Howard is far more active in the interior than Bynum ever was, and his ability to create different passing angles with his movement might force other teams to strongly consider doubling him in the post.
One of the reasons Orlando's perimeter shooters were so effective was because opponents were often forced to choose between giving the Magic's other players wide open looks or getting demolished by Howard in the middle.
Opponents of the Lakers will be forced to make the same decision, but it's a little different when the player being left open on the perimeter is one of the greatest scorers in NBA history.
Bryant could possibly approach his scoring average from last season while taking far fewer shots than his league-leading total from 2011-12.
His distribution skills should receive a little more recognition as well since Howard likes to play above the rim and finish with authority.
You won't see many finger-rolls and layups from Howard, which means that many of the point-blank shot attempts that Gasol and Bynum blew after being set up by Bryant will be converted by Howard.
And if that isn't enough, Howard's impact on Bryant should extend to the defensive end of the floor as well.
Bryant is no longer considered an elite defender by many observers, but he's still capable of playing great defense in spurts, and he has to be confident knowing that one of the best help defenders in the game has his back.
Howard has a niche for erasing his teammates' mistakes on defense, and Bryant will be more comfortable trusting his instincts and quick hands in the passing lanes.
Bryant can certainly gamble a little more defensively with Howard guarding the rim, and his steals average might increase as a result.
If Howard and Bryant can manage to merge their talents into a singular focus, next season could be a career-defining journey for Howard and a legacy-defining moment for Bryant.
Last season, Bryant defied wisdom by avoiding the inevitable decline that so many have predicted as a result of time and wear and tear on his weary body.
Right now, Bryant looks leaner, meaner and even more motivated to capture his sixth NBA Championship, and with Howard in the paint, Bryant may be set up for a spectacular regular season along the way.
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