Kobe Bryant isn't usually a source of levity, particularly at the eye of a firestorm of chaos and controversy.
But on January 7, that's precisely what the Black Mamba did. The leader of the Los Angeles Lakers tweeted a photo of himself and Dwight Howard mockingly preparing for bare-knuckled fisticuffs in the team's training room, with head coach Mike D'Antoni helpless to intercede.
The mamba vs d12 !! It's on lol twitter.com/kobebryant/sta…— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) January 7, 2013
The idea, clearly, was to make light of a recent report by Stefan Bondy and Frank Isola of The New York Daily News. According to their "sources," Bryant and Howard nearly came to blows following LA's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on New Year's Day.
However, reports from both Jarrod N. Rudolph of RealGM and Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com indicate that there was no physical altercation between the two superstars and that any rumor to the contrary was little more than baseless hearsay.
Two Lakers sources have adamantly shot down the reported Dwight/Kobe incident. One said, "it's simply not true."— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) January 7, 2013
Nonetheless, you don't need to be a clinical psychologist to notice that all may not be well between Kobe and Dwight. Howard seemed to take an indirect swipe at Bryant with his comments about the Lakers' lackluster chemistry following a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on January 4.
Their partnership on the court hasn't exactly been cause for sweet music, either. Their pick-and-rolls have been far from perfect, Bryant's passes are often off-point and Dwight's touches with Kobe on the court have been too few for a player of his size, skill and stature; Howard averages all of 10.2 shots per 36 minutes next to Bryant, per NBA.com.
Not that it's been all bad. According to NBA.com's stats tool, no Lakers player has assisted on more Howard baskets than Kobe has, and LA has outscored the opposition by a solid 4.9 points per 100 possessions when those two have shared the court.
Still, the relationship between the two has been decidedly friction-filled, albeit not in a way that would necessarily surprise anyone. Howard arrived in LA as a prima donna whose penchant for drama (among other things) left the Orlando Magic reeling. As for Bryant, the last time he teamed up with an elite center groomed in central Florida, things didn't end so well.
At least he and Shaquille O'Neal managed to win three titles in four trips to the NBA Finals before the whole operation imploded. At this rate, these Kobe-Dwight Lakers will need a stroke of good fortune just to make the playoffs. They're 15-18, 11th in the West and three games back of the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth seed.
What's more, they'll be without Dwight (and Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill) on account of injury in the weeks to come. In other words, things are bad and may well get worse before they get any better.
How culpable Bryant is in all of this is a matter of some debate.
During the preseason, he seemingly went out of his way to make sure everyone knew that the Lakers were his team, even with Howard, Gasol and Steve Nash on board. More recently, Kobe's taken to blaming the team's age and overall lack of effort for its failings.
General manager Mitch Kupchak, though, isn't buying it—not all of it, anyway (per Eric Pincus of The Los Angeles Times):
"I don't think age is a factor, no. That's an excuse. I don't think that's a factor at all when you look at our team. Young teams don't win championships. You have to have a good mix of experience and some legs in this business. . . . I don't think for a second this team is too old to win a championship."
To be sure, Bryant hasn't exactly been a paragon of all-around energy and hustle himself. At best, he's played defense in fits and spurts and come off as confused at times, particularly in the pick-and-roll. At worst, he's been disinterested and disengaged on that end of the floor, preferring to gamble and/or let Dwight clean up his messes rather than actually stay in front of his man on the perimeter.
Kobe's never been known to be an easy person to get along with off the court, either. Bryant's been particularly prickly this season, calling out Pau's need for "big boy pants" and berating former teammates like Smush Parker and Kwame Brown when he's delved into "Candid Kobe" mode.
He's never been one to coddle in the locker room. Part of the optimism surrounding Nash's arrival centered on the point guard's presumed ability to establish a "Good Cop/Bad Cop" dynamic within the squad similar to that which Bryant once developed and shared with Derek Fisher. But Nash's prolonged injury problems, along with the general lack of acclimation time, has left the Lakers apparently out of whack in that regard.
Which is troubling with regard to Dwight. He's known around the NBA to be a rather sensitive soul, one who aims to please (almost too often) and doesn't always take well to "tough love." Kobe, on the other hand, is none too hesitant to crack the whip, especially if there's nobody ready, willing and able to keep him in check in that respect.
If Dwight, who will be a free agent in July, opts to leave LA on account of Kobe's heavy-handed leadership and brash style of communication, then Bryant will undoubtedly be at least one among a handful of fitting culprits.
Then Kobe will be captive amidst the mess of a franchise he's shaped over the years and will truly have to take responsibility for and control of whatever waning prospects he has for claiming a sixth championship before he calls it quits.
Then again, it's not as though Bryant isn't doing and hasn't done everything in his power to keep the Lakers competitive amid their ongoing malaise.
Say what you will about Kobe's shot attempts (tops in the NBA), usage rate (also tops) and turnovers (sixth), but there's little doubt that he plays hard every night. If anything, he and Metta World Peace are the sole Lakers who can comfortably make such a claim.
Kobe, though, is the only one of the two who's kept the Lakers in some games and pulled them back into others in which they had no business of competing, at least by measure of effort.
Of course, this is the usual starting point for the same chicken-and-egg debate that's dogged Bryant, his supporters and his doubters alike over the years. Does Kobe take over because his teammates aren't getting the job done? Or are they failing because Kobe's doing too much and, in turn, giving them cause to disengage?
Would the Lakers do better if Kobe were to take a backseat and let Dwight (when healthy) carry the day? According to NBA.com, the answer, so far, is "no." The Lakers have actually fared better overall when Kobe plays and Dwight sits, and far outpaced their paltry production during times when Howard has the spotlight to himself.
Kobe would probably be the first to admit that not much (if anything) has gone according to plan this season. Injuries to some stars, subpar play from others, coaching changes and media-inspired controversy have all conspired to turn the Lakers' season thus far into an unmitigated disaster.
But if the Lakers turn this thing around, if they manage to save face and do some damage in the playoffs, it'll have been because of Kobe, not in spite of him. However big a part of the problem you think Bryant's been to this point, he is and will always been a crucial part of any solution.
Just as Bryant is likely to blame (in part) for whatever dust-up may or may not have occurred between himself and Dwight, so, too, does he deserve credit for poking fun at the overblown reaction.
With Howard's help.