More than a month after a seismic four-team trade shifted the balance of power in the NBA, the Dwight Howard honeymoon continues in Los Angeles.
The Lakers' newest superstar has made his proverbial rounds over the past few weeks, shaking more hands than Mitt Romney and kissing more babies than Barack Obama.
Howard cracked jokes at his introductory press conference, sharing a moment with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He even offered his mea culpas for the train wreck that was his final season in Orlando, saying that all he wanted was for everyone to love him.
Regardless of whether his recent PR tour was calculated or not, Howard has wasted little time endearing himself to a Laker faithful that has visions of multiple titles dancing in their collective heads. But while he may be the franchise's most beloved big man since Shaquille O'Neal, a more important question looms even larger: Will Howard ever mean as much to the Lakers as Kobe Bryant?
To say that Howard has his work cut out for him would be an understatement. Bryant already had three championship rings on his hand the age of 23, and he would go on to win two more at the Lakers' alpha dog in 2009 and 2010. At the very least, Howard would have to match Bryant's seven NBA Finals appearances, and anything that the former Magic star accomplishes before Bryant retires will only serve to strengthen Kobe's already-stellar resume.
From solely a talent perspective, there's no doubt that Howard has the ability to end his career as one of the greatest players to ever don the purple and gold. Not only is he the best center in the NBA today, but Howard also has three Defensive Player of the Year awards in his trophy case, and has been named to the All-NBA First Team for the past five seasons.
Ultimately, two important factors will wind up defining Howard's legacy with the Lakers. For starters, his balky back needs to hold up for at least the next 10 years. And erasing Bryant's name from the record books is going to take quite some time. Considering the fact that his status for the season opener is still up in the air, the probability of Howard playing another decade at an elite level is remote.
More importantly, once the post-Bryant era begins in Los Angeles, the Lakers' front office has to surround Howard with the complementary pieces that he'll need in order to ensure that the team remains competitive. At 23 years old, Howard was able to lead a mediocre Magic squad to the NBA Finals—that feat may not be so easy to replicate unless the Lakers bring in a few sidekicks for the self-proclaimed "Superman."
But even if everything breaks right for Howard over the next few years, Bryant's body of work is simply too impressive to ignore. If Kobe walked away from the game today, he'd arguably be one of the 10 greatest players who ever stepped on the hardwood. Dime Magazine recently named him the "Player of the Century," and rare is the person who would argue that distinction.
It will be difficult enough for Howard's entire career to rival Bryant's credentials, and it will be harder still for him and the Lakers to rack up numerous titles with the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder also battling for NBA supremacy.
If Howard is fortunate enough to lead a few championship parades through downtown L.A., then he may be able to carve out a niche as one of the greatest centers in Lakers' history.
But when it comes to challenging Kobe's legacy, the odds clearly aren't in Howard's favor.