The Los Angeles Lakers narrow victory over the Charlotte Bobcats on Friday night did little to stifle the sense of impending doom surrounding this season's campaign. In fact the manner in which the Lakers won may have added to it.
For most of the first half guard Kobe Bryant and center Dwight Howard took turns looking dis-interested, while the rest of the Lakers took turns missing shots and handing the ball over to the Bobcats.
Bryant was held scoreless during the first 24 minutes and Howard's double digit scoring first half couldn't offset his uninspired defensive play in the paint.
The Lakers fell behind by 20 points in the third quarter to the worst team in the NBA before Bryant came alive offensively to finish with 20 points and Howard finally began to show some energy on the defensive side of the floor.
The slim 100-93 victory over Charlotte may have ensured that the Lakers will finish their seven game road trip with a winning record, regardless of what happens Sunday in Miami, but it didn't provide any real evidence that the Lakers are improving.
In fact, the relationship between Howard and Bryant may be regressing, and it doesn't help the situation when both players choose to air out their greivances to the media instead of handling the situation internally.
Howard doesn't appear to have the fortitude to stand up to Bryant's withering critiques, nor the maturity to accept his role in the mess that has become the Lakers season.
The Lakers can pay Howard more than any other team once he becomes a free agent in July, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if Howard turns down the cash to escape the shadow of Bryant.
That might be a worst-case scenario for the Lakers, but even if Howard does decide to leave there are silver linings in every cloud.
Lost in all the drama between Howard and Bryant is the emergence of forward Earl Clark, who is also a free agent at the end of this season, and his price tag figures to be a lot less than Howard's.
Clark scored 18 points and pulled down 12 rebounds against Charlotte in another strong performance that illustrates how important he has become since injuries to Jordan Hill and more recently Pau Gasol.
And it's possible that Clark may be a better fit for the Lakers' plans moving forward than Howard.
For the season Clark is only averaging 7.8 points per game and 6.2 rebounds, but for the month of February Clark is averaging 13.2 points and 9.8 rebounds while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field.
In the 15 games Clark has started he has recorded eight double-doubles, which just happens to be one more than Howard has recorded in the same span.
Clark doesn't give the Lakers the potential for defensive dominance in the paint that Howard does, but he's a pretty good defender in his own right, and the most versatile player on the Lakers' roster since Lamar Odom.
Clark doesn't have Odom's court vision in the open floor, but he has similar ball-handling skills, he is a strong rebounder, and he's comfortable stepping out on the perimeter and shooting the three. But more importantly for the Lakers, Clark is young, and he figures to be relatively cheap to retain.
Additionally, unlike Howard the 25-year-old Clark seems to have bonded with Bryant and is eager to soak up any knowledge Bryant has to share.
Talent or ability has never been Clark's issue, but maybe he just needed the right environment for his skills to thrive, and ironically in the most dysfunctional atmosphere imaginable Clark has blossomed.
Losing Howard under any circumstances would not seem to be a desirable result for the Lakers, but there have been whispers that the team may be a more cohesive unit with Gasol in the middle anyway.
Clark doesn't give the Lakers the same superstar credibility that Howard does, but he does have the potential for more growth.
Whether or not Howard ever fully recovers from his back and shoulder injuries he has likely already reached his ceiling as a professional player, but Clark may only be scratching the surface of his.
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