Have Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard Finally Unlocked Key to LA Lakers Potential?

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Have Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard Finally Unlocked Key to LA Lakers Potential?
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

How it is now is how it always should have been for Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Lakers.

They fell as far as eight games under .500 after a tactical breakdown against the Memphis Grizzlies left the Lakers battered and seemingly hopeless. They weren't going to contend for a playoff spot, let alone a title. They were headed for the lottery.

Then a slight turnaround ensued, followed by a bold augury made by the Black Mamba himself, one that guaranteed the Lakers were headed for the postseason. And then, there was more winning.

Since that collapse in Memphis, Los Angeles is 16-6 and is now a half-game ahead of the Utah Jazz for the Western Conference's final playoff spot. It hasn't always been pretty, but the Lakers (finally) appear postseason-bound; they seem headed in the right direction.

Which begs the question: What changed?

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Some of the numbers have changed, but the results have changed. What gives?

Looking at how the boys in purple and gold are still faring, no major tactical adjustments have been employed. Pau Gasol is still on the bench, the Lakers are among the top eight in offensive efficiency and still dwell near the bottom (19th) in defensive efficiency.

To put that in perspective, at eight games under .500, Los Angeles ranked sixth in offensive efficiency and 20th on the defensive side of the ball. Hardly anything, at least worthy of stopping the presses, has changed in that regard.

Then what exactly? Something had to have changed. Save for the conspiracy theorists lurking behind the Hollywood sign, there's no way we're believing opponents are just laying down and allowing the Lakers to amble their way to victory.

Something has happened. This isn't luck. A stellar defensive performance against the Chicago Bulls isn't luck. Fighting back from 25 points down against the New Orleans Hornets isn't a mere happenstance. Los Angeles' season cannot be defined by a series of inexplicable coincidences.

And we're right, this isn't just good fortune on the Lakers' behalf. Not all of it.

As we continue to rummage through the thick shards of chaos that is Los Angeles' current crusade, we needn't look any further than that of Kobe and Howard. They're the joint reason why the Lakers are where they are recently. They've found balance and their team has found success.

Howard has focused on defense...

This is no longer a dyad divided by egos. They're united by a common goal: winning. And to win, they've realized that they must work together, complement each other and defer to one another on either side of the floor.

Take the last 10 games, in which Los Angeles is 8-2. Those 10 bouts have seen Howard shift his focus to defense and Bryant to offense. Not that both of them have neglected their responsibilities on the other side of the ball—because they haven't—they're simply leading where they were born to lead.

Over the past 10 games, Howard is averaging 14.8 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 1.4 steals. He's pitched in 15.5 points a night as well, but it's his contribution on defense and the glass that matters most—when they're complemented by Bryant's offensive excursions, that is.

Kobe is averaging 32.2 points and 7.2 assists per bout over the last 10 as well, a Mamba special through and through.

Again, during that time, the Lakers are 8-2.  

But that's just 10 games. Drawing conclusions and rendering boisterous presumptions off small sample sizes is fool's gold.

Unless, of course, such "conclusions" and "presumptions" are laced with longevity. In this instance, our results are corroborated by such extensive evidence.

...while Kobe has been left to run the offense.

Howard and Bryant have been on the floor for 30 of the Los Angeles' 33 victories. In those 30 games, Howard is averaging 12.9 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 2.8 blocks. Kobe (subtracting his totals from the three games the Lakers won without Howard) is averaging 26 points and 7.3 assists.

When the Lakers have been losing, however, the results have been noticeably different.

Howard is averaging 11.6 rebounds, 0.7 steals and 1.9 blocks in the 28 losses he's played. In those same 28 losses, Kobe is actually averaging 30.7 points, but complementing them with just 4.8 assists.

Are these just random occurrences?

Um, no.

Kobe and Howard's collective performances have suffered in losses and excelled in victories. There is a correlation to be drawn there. 

There is a successful blueprint to be found in establishing that happy medium.

USA TODAY Sports
The fate of the Lakers, good or bad, rests on the shoulders of both Howard and Kobe. Always has, and always will.

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The key for Los Angeles then has been finding that aforementioned balance consistently, the one that sees Kobe dominate as both a scorer and playmaker and Howard have his way defensively.

That happy medium is associated with each of the 30 wins Howard and Kobe have snagged together, especially in the last 10. If the Lakers are to emerge as the contenders they were supposed to be, it is this equity Bryant and Howard must sustain.

Just like they are now.

Just like they have to moving forward.

And just like they should've been all along.

 

*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82Games.com unless otherwise noted.

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