For those keeping score at home, make it 17 wins, 24 losses, two season resets and one spirited team meeting for the Los Angeles Lakers.
With players starting to make their concerns public (via Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register) following the team's latest defeat, Monday's 95-83 loss to the Chicago Bulls, the time was right for a Festivus-style airing of grievances.
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni confirms Lakers had an emotional clearing of the air at shootaround today.— Steve Kyler (@stevekylerNBA) January 23, 2013
According to Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, coach Mike D'Antoni opened the meeting pleading for a better showing from his 26th-ranked defense (101.4 points allowed per game).
Steve Nash stressed the need for the team to grow comfortable in the offensive system, be it the up-tempo style preferred by Nash and D'Antoni or a more methodical attack that appears a better fit for the rest of the roster.
When it was Kobe Bryant's turn to speak, he confronted Dwight Howard with the million-dollar Lakers question for this season and beyond. He asked Howard whether or not he enjoyed playing with the five-time champion.
Finally, it appeared as if the Lakers might be getting closer to turning things around—or blowing the whole thing up.
Howard largely avoided Bryant's question, but the important thing is the concern was at least voiced within the confines of the team. It wasn't a prolonged, backhanded battle through the media, but rather the face-to-face encounter that could prove to be the season savior.
The importance of a team meeting wouldn't carry the same weight if the club was winning games, but with a 2-9 stretch sending this club reeling, it was an unfortunate necessity:
D'Antoni on Lakers team meeting: "You never want those kind b/c that means we're in trouble a bit. That doesn't happen when you're 40-1."— Mike Bresnahan (@Mike_Bresnahan) January 23, 2013
Although Howard didn't entertain Bryant's grilling during the meeting, his later comments to the media proved he was at least listening to what the former MVP had to say.
His comments had more than a slight Bryant-feel to them, via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com:
"I have to do more for this team. There are a lot of responsibilities on my shoulders...I'm a guy that has to dominate for us to win. We're not going to win unless I dominate."
Either Howard had done a lot of growing up since Monday's cries for more shot attempts, or the 17-year veteran had schooled him on the dangers of making those pleas public.
The Lakers have a strong enough veteran contingency to withstand some wars of the words, but one has to wonder how the apparent carefree Howard has dealt with an exceedingly less accepting media. He had to anticipate things being different than they were during his tenure with the Orlando Magic, but none of us saw this type of disaster unfolding.
"Unfortunately right now his attitude towards the game is impacting his production on the court and the Lakers are not getting his very best," said Van Gundy. "He doesn't like his role. You can see from his comments, from his play, he has very high role-frustration right now."
Howard has a reason to question his relative lack of involvement (his 10.4 field-goal attempts per game are his second-fewest since his rookie year), particularly given his team-best 58.2 field-goal percentage.
But he has to shoulder some of the blame himself. He has to be stronger with the basketball when he gets touches; his 3.2 turnovers per game are inexcusable given where he's receiving those looks. He has to be more explosive out of the pick-and-roll. A Nash-D'Antoni-led team will never abandon the system that has brought both parties their most success.
And he has to find a way to improve that unsightly free-throw percentage (50.4). The Lakers' porous defense will keep them from blowing out opponents, meaning they're headed to a steady diet of crunch-time opportunities. When Howard's on the floor, he's simply too easy to stop by sending him to the line.
As this aging roster has shown us, maturity isn't something that develops on its own over time. And it's not something easy to find after 27 years of living without it.
Howard's right on one point, he needs to be a dominant force for this team to succeed. But he can't forget that domination doesn't have to be restricted to one end of the floor.
*All statistics used in this article are accurate as of 1/22/2013.