It's like deja vu all over again in Lakerland. Kobe Bryant, the top shooting guard in the NBA, teaming up with a superstar center, formerly of the Orlando Magic, on a Lakers team with championship aspirations and expectations.
At this point, the Black Mamba can only hope that he and Dwight Howard will be partying like it's 1999, and that the personality issues that plagued his relationship with Shaquille O'Neal in the 2000s won't...errr...you know.
Except, this time, the tables are turned. This time, there will be no tug-of-war over whose team it is, assuming Kobe's words at media day—"No, it's my team."—ring true throughout the season.
They certainly should. Pau Gasol established himself as Kobe's trusty sidekick, the Pippen to his Jordan, long ago. Steve Nash is a leader of men, but, at the age of 38 and without a championship ring on his finger, he'll more than likely cede any semblance of the control he once enjoyed with the Phoenix Suns as a price to be paid for ultimate success.
As for Dwight, who was once reluctant to accept directives from Bryant over the phone, the big fella is already saying all the right things. As he told the attendant crowd in El Segundo this week of his relationship with Kobe:
"I know he's going to be tough on me, but I expect that, and I want him to be that. I want to be that guy. I'll take all the heat he's going to give me, because I know at the end of the day, it's going to make me a better player and a better person. ... I'm willing to go through that process, learn from one of the greatest ever to play the game, and I think it'll be great."
Dwight stands to gain plenty from his partnership with Kobe, who, along with Tim Duncan, is arguably the most successful superstar of the post-Michael Jordan era so far. The 26-year-old center is due for a crash course in how to win at the highest level, how to reconcile his jovial disposition with serious business and how to take solace in the Rolling Stones.
Though, as it happens, it's Kobe who may well get what he wants and what he needs, if the chips fall as many expect they will. What he wants is another ring within the next two or three years, before he retires, to tie Michael Jordan's career total of six and further establish himself as one of the game's greatest wings therein.
What he needs (and now has) is a young superstar with whom he can share his burden without yielding his ultimate responsibility or the lion's share of the spotlight that comes with it.
Still, it may seem strange to think that Kobe, of all people, needs anything. His resume's already filled to the margins with accolades—an MVP, two Finals MVPs, two scoring titles, 81 points in one game, 14 All-Star appearances, four All-Star MVPs, 14 All-NBA selections, 12 All-Defensive selections and a Slam Dunk championship—with which the Ghosts of Basketball's Past would hardly find fault.
Sure, his first three titles came as Shaq's swingman sidekick, though Kobe was already a top-10 player in 2000 and 2001 and went on to assert himself as a top-five talent in the NBA from 2002 on.
And yes, Bryant's split with the Big Diesel in 2004 was ugly and all-too-public. But, in retrospect, the end of the Kobe-Shaq regime was simply a new beginning for Bryant, the catalyst behind three trips to the NBA Finals that followed, albeit after three years of growing pains in LA.
So what, then, does Kobe have left to prove?
That he can do it all over again. That he can lead yet another incarnation of the Lakers to the promised land.
On the one hand, it should be easier than ever. As Kobe put it:
"On its face, it's the best talent I've been around. Whether that translates into a winning a championship remains to be seen, but just on paper, you're talking about defensive player of the years, MVPs, All-Stars — guys who are at the top of their position and have been at the top for a long time."
On the other hand, championships aren't won on paper, especially in today's NBA, which is already so congested at the top. Those All-Stars, MVPs and DPOYs will have to come together in time to compete with a free-agent-filled superteam (the Miami Heat) and a home-grown superteam (the Oklahoma City Thunder) that just went head-to-head in the NBA Finals.
To do so, Kobe will have to do something he's never done before—lean on and lead another bona fide superstar, one who came into his own well before linking up with the Mamba. Bryant's already tenuously coexisted with a superstar, commandeered a perennial All-Star (Gasol) to be his running mate, and groomed a gifted nincompoop (Andrew Bynum) into a studly-but-still-petulant contributor.
Now, it'll be up to Kobe to make it work with Howard, a player who lives to please people but, as the "Dwightmare" made clear, doesn't always understand how best to do so. Kobe's task, in this instance, is not only to win, but also to turn an established teammate into a winner.
A task to which the often-abrasive Bryant wouldn't seem particularly suited, given his less-than-forgiving style of leadership.
The real test for Kobe, though, isn't to go all Pygmalion on Dwight like he's Henry Higgins. Rather, it's about Kobe staying within himself and creating room on his turf in which Howard can flourish.
As Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer himself, often says, he's not a dog trainer, but a people trainer. He teaches dog owners how to behave and assert themselves so that their dogs will follow them accordingly.
The same is true for Bryant. He can't hope to change Howard hands-on or control Dwight's reaction to the situation. All Kobe can do is set the stage, be a leader and encourage Howard to follow.
Luckily, he'll have a "people person" in Steve Nash to help facilitate what might otherwise be a contentious process.
Still, it'll be a new trick for an old dog like Kobe to learn, though one that could elevate his legacy to heights rarely seen in basketball lore. Another title would be more than Kobe's sixth overall.
It'd also be his sixth over the course of lifting three distinct Lakers squads to the Larry O'Brien Trophy. There were the Kobe-Shaq Three-Peat Lakers. Then there were the Kobe-Pau-Bynum-Lamar Odom Lakers.
Now, there are the Kobe-Pau-Dwight-Nash Lakers, whose lone link to the Kobe-Shaq Lakers is (you guessed it!) Kobe. Michael Jordan essentially led two Chicago Bulls teams—one with Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright, John Paxson, Will Perdue, BJ Armstrong and Stacey King; another with Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc, Luc Longley, Dennis Rodman, Bill Wennington and Ron Harper—to separate three-peats.
But even His Airness wasn't the only thread tying those teams together. He had Scottie Pippen by his side and Phil Jackson on the bench for all six. Their roles never really changed, either, with Michael always No. 1, Scottie always No. 1A and the Zen Master doing whatever it is the Zen Master does, exactly.
In that sense, Kobe has a chance to become not only the winningest and longest-lasting of the great wings in NBA history, but also the one who dealt with (and triumphed amidst) the most turnover in the process.
Blasphemous as this may seem—for Lakers fans, Celtics fans and basketball lifers in general—Kobe's career arc, in a more general sense, might actually be more closely akin to Bill Russell's.
To be sure, Bryant's NBA mantle will never be as stocked as Russell's, which features five MVPs and 11 championships accumulated over the course of a 13-year career.
But setting aside those specifics, along with the fact that the league and the game have grown/changed/improved so much since Russell's heyday, the comparison makes sense, surprisingly enough.
Like Kobe, Russell came into the league as a precocious young talent playing alongside one of the faces of the league. Bob Cousy was Bill's Shaq, the established superstar on a loaded squad. They spent seven seasons together—one fewer than the eight that Kobe and Shaq shared—and won six titles together.
Or, about as many titles as any team with arguably two of the top three players in the league (and no qualms between them) should.
The C's kept winning even after Houdini retired from the Hardwood. Russell continued his run of preeminence while retaining Hall-of-Famers like Sam Jones, KC Jones, Tommy Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey and "Satch" Sanders—all holdovers from the Cooz-Russell era—as his sidekicks.
In 1966, with Russell's playing career nearing its twilight, Red Auerbach, who'd coached Russell and the Celts to their first nine titles—not entirely unlike how the Zen Master oversaw Kobe's first five—stepped aside and, for comparison's sake, made Russell his own (and the Celtics') Mike Brown.
In the year to follow, Russell's C's yielded a title to the Philadephia 76ers, who were led by Wilt Chamberlain, the game's most gifted player, not unlike how Kobe's Lakers gave way to LeBron James' Miami Heat in 2012.
Shortly thereafter, Russell returned to his winning ways, bringing home titles in 1968 and 1969.
And though those were still Russell's Celtics, they were hardly his alone. By that time, John Havlicek, whom the C's drafted out of Ohio State in 1962, had emerged as an elite all-around talent and one of the league's most prolific scorers. Those last two title-winners were Russell's teams, though the stage was clearly set for Hondo to take over.
Which he did to great effect. Hondo went on to lead the C's to two more titles without Russell's aide, in 1974 and 1976, while sharing the stage with a young Dave Cowens. It was Cowens who eventually passed the torch to Larry Bird, and so on and so forth.
The point being, Kobe has set himself up to be the Lakers' modern-day Bill Russell, the franchise legend who learned the ropes alongside a bona fide superstar, came into his own as the cast around him changed and, towards the end of the line, handed the baton off to another future Hall-of-Famer.
That would appear to be Bryant's goal with Howard—not just maximizing his own remaining years, but also setting up the Lakers for success when he's long gone. As he said at Lakers media day:
"This is my team, but I want to make sure that Dwight, when I retire, this is going to be his. I want to teach him everything I possibly know, so that when I step away, this organization can ride on as if I never left."
That's a legacy that even Jordan, his on-court successes and all, can't quite match. His Bulls collapsed into mediocrity upon his retirement and haven't hung a new banner in the Windy City since 1998.
And that, too, is part of the challenge that awaits Kobe that, if fruitful, could make the Dwight Howard era the icing on Kobe's already artfully-decorated cake.
That is, if Kobe can be both selfish enough to want to win forever, and selfless enough to set up others to do the same once the old folks' home comes calling.
Deja vu, indeed.
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