After Kobe Bryant, Will Los Angeles Belong to Chris Paul or Dwight Howard?

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After Kobe Bryant, Will Los Angeles Belong to Chris Paul or Dwight Howard?
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

If it weren't for NBA commissioner David Stern's most infamous of "basketball decisions," there would be no question as to who would run the Staples Center once Kobe Bryant calls it quits.

Chris Paul has everything you'd want from a Hollywood-based hoops superstar: the respect of his peers as the best point guard on the planet, a top-three regular season MVP candidacy, an All-Star Game MVP and a winning team that plays an exciting brand of ball.

The only problem? He plays for the Los Angeles Clippers, not their more respected co-tenants, the Los Angeles Lakers.

At this point, that's one of the few reasons of any consequence that Dwight Howard has any hope of owning LA after the Black Mamba slithers into the Great Basketball Beyond.

Or his luxurious compound in Orange County—whichever's closer.

The specter of Bryant's retirement came back into focus during All-Star weekend, when, during an interview with Damon Jones in the Nike Basketball Athlete Lounge, Kobe claimed that he had "two years max" left on his 34-year-old wheels.

If Bryant truly had his druthers when handpicking a successor, it wouldn't be a stretch to suggest he'd take Paul over Howard, perhaps without even batting an eye.

CP3 is the caliber of competitor after Kobe's own heart, with an ability to connect with his teammates in a way that even Bryant could never master. He leads by deed and by word, but without the relentless and often brutally harsh commentary that's come to mark the Mamba's style. Derek Fisher once served as the perfect counterweight to that in the locker room.

Paul is also a crunch-time killer, a true superstar who relishes pressure rather than running away from it. He's a winner whose mere presence and manner of being breeds success.

In other words, Paul perfectly fits the prototype of a "Lakers franchise player," one that Bryant has come to redefine over the better part of the last two decades.

That's not even considering Paul's pristine understanding of how to handle his business without throwing everyone around him under the proverbial bus.

His exit from the New Orleans Hornets was swift and rather graceful, without any dragging of soon-to-be-former colleagues through the mud or waffling from moment to moment.

According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Paul has now all but signed on the dotted line to remain with the Clippers for the foreseeable future, even though free agency lies ahead.

Better yet, most of the chatter regarding said free agency has spent the bulk of the 2012-13 season on the back burner as the Clips have gone about the business of winning basketball games. 

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Howard, on the other hand, has done nothing to quiet the storm brewing around his future. If anything, he's stoked the mayhem and invited controversy by allowing it to become an open question that he doesn't know how to answer.

Though presumably, not by design. By all accounts, he and Kobe just don't seem to get along, as much as they'd prefer people to think otherwise.

After the All-Star Game, Bryant addressed the impending hubbub over whether Dwight would stay or go at the February 21 trade deadline (via Ben Bolch of The Los Angeles Times):

I don't know what they are going to do. But at this point... , it doesn't matter. what matters to us is what we do on Wednesday [against the Boston Celtics] and go from there.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, though it's easy to read too much into Bryant's words. He's been uncharacteristically candid about anything and everything since last summer.

Still, if Kobe really wanted Dwight to stick around, one would think he'd lobby a bit harder for his relatively new teammate. Instead, he seems to have taken a shoulder-shrugging approach to getting through to the fickle center.

Bryant wants to win first and foremost, but may not have the wherewithal to carry a struggling team and convince his potential "heir" to the Purple and Gold throne to spend less time stargazing and more time focusing on the team-wide task at hand. Howard needs to carry himself like the future face of a franchise ought to both on and off the court.

But Kobe doesn't have the luxury of choosing which of LA's two prime-of-career performers to hand the baton to before he races off into the sunset. That ship sailed even before Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's letter denouncing "CP3-2-LA, Part One" was leaked into the babbling brooks of the blogosphere.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Nevertheless, as far as personalities are concerned, Paul appears much better equipped to handle the spotlight of L.A. and the weight of expectations that accompany superstardom in the league's second-largest market.

If brands were no object, Paul would've already crossed the finish line, with Howard still stumbling out of the starting blocks.

Both have dealt with injuries—CP3 to his knee, Dwight to his back and shoulder—in different ways.

Paul has played like an MVP, regardless of his physical circumstances, with averages of 16.6 points, 9.6 assists and a league-leading 2.6 steals.

As for Howard, his effectiveness has been limited quite drastically by a back problem that's been slow to heal, and now a torn labrum that leaves his status in doubt from day to day. He hasn't been getting off the floor or moving with the same grace and agility that allowed him to dominate during his days with the Orlando Magic.

In that regard, Howard deserves some sort of pass, at least until he has a better idea as to whether or not he'll ever recapture his once-overwhelming athleticism.

On the whole, though, Dwight hasn't exactly dealt with his circumstances all that well. Sure, he still leads the league in rebounding and converts 57.8 percent of his attempts from the field.

But he's demanded more isolation touches on the low block, even though his back-to-the-basket game is anything but Shaq-like. He's bristled at the thought of setting screens and leaping to the rim despite having been a terror in the pick-and-roll in years past and sharing the floor with a Hall of Fame point guard in Steve Nash.

What's worse, he's used the media (of which there are so many members in southern California) as a sounding board for his concerns at times.  

Both have affected the cultures of their respective organizations, albeit in drastically disparate ways. Paul transformed the Clips from a perennial laughingstock plagued by vague curses into a confident, feisty bunch on the verge of title contention. He's lent his skills and swagger to a squad that, with a 39-17 record, can now hang with the big boys in the wild Western Conference and has the requisite talent to do so for years to come.

Howard, on the other hand, has only amplified the annual circus that surrounds the Lakers, if not instituted one of his own. The Lakers have fallen from a respectable playoff outfit in the West last season to one that'll need to scrap and claw just to grab the eighth seed this time around.

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Not that the Lakers would be better off with Andrew Bynum, who they offered up as sacrifice for Howard in August. Bynum has yet to play a single minute for the Philadelphia 76ers this season amidst (surprise) persistent knee problems.

Bynum, it seems, wasn't any more ready to be "next" than Howard has proven to be.

At this point, the cultural cachet of the Lakers, locally and otherwise, is about the only thing keeping Dwight within sniffing distance of CP3. As great as Paul is, has been and will likely continue to be, he faces an uphill climb toward outright respectability in a city that's been steeped in Purple and Gold since the late Dr. Jerry Buss swept into town just in time for the "Showtime" Lakers to capture the imagination of millions.

The Clippers can beat the Lakers 'til kingdom come (and they have of late), but it won't matter to many until LA's "other" team starts hanging banners and retiring jerseys right next to the gallery of those hung by the likes of George Mikan, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal and, of course, Kobe.

Likewise, Chris Paul's primacy in the City of Angels won't truly register on the radar until he does what nearly all of this town's most beloved sports figures have done: win something of consequence.

The same goes for Dwight, but he, at the very least, will have history and tradition to depend on if he chooses to lead the Lakers. If he accepts, he can place his faith in the Lakers roping in talent with which to surround him in the years to come, if only by the force of the organization's gravitational pull.

While Howard's job is to follow in the well-worn footsteps of Lakers big men past, Paul's is to blaze an entirely new trail through a concrete jungle known all too well for its freeways and thoroughfares.

Which superstar is better equipped to fill Kobe Bryant's shoes in LA?

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In some ways, they're both perfectly suited for their respective situations. Howard is known as a people pleaser and a follower of sorts who drums up drama wherever he roams, like basketball's version of the Music Man. "Luckily" for Howard, he gets to "serve" Kobe Bryant and pursue a path to glory laid out by Hall of Famers before him, all within a franchise known for drama at all levels.

Even more so now that the future lies firmly in the hands of Dr. Buss' children—namely Jerry and Jeanie, who haven't always gotten along so well.

Perhaps Howard would fare far better if he were both healthy and the unquestioned No. 1, though his work so far suggests otherwise.

Paul needn't concern himself with such frivolities, nor would he. Even Donald Sterling, as notorious an owner as the NBA has ever seen, has managed to take a backseat amidst his team's long-awaited run of success.

Beyond the owner's box, CP3's demeanor as an unparalleled leader of men leaves him perfectly suited to the task of forging a new identity for his team that lies ahead.

He's a creative force who seems to grasp the notion that his off-court opportunities for the expansion and promotion of his personal "brand" will come as an outgrowth of his on-court exploits, not vice versa. He puts winning above all else, because all else is the byproduct of winning.

That may not jibe with the sort of fame-seeking-for-fame's-sake that is in LA's stereotypical DNA, but it carries plenty of weight with those who know that true immortality in sports is achieved not through self-promotion, but rather at the head of the quest for collective greatness.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It certainly helps Paul's case that he plays on such a deep and talented team replete with young players and roster flexibility, while Dwight is sandwiched between salary-cap purgatory and All-Stars of yesteryear.

But, like those in any municipality that pines for championships, Angelenos won't accept excuses as substitutes for results.

Right now, that puts the power over the city's Mamba-less future firmly in Chris Paul's hands. It might just as easily be Paul's de facto reward for sticking around if Howard's current displeasure leads him to seek asylum (and a paycheck) in a different city this summer.

 

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