With the Black Mamba expected to be sidelined for six to nine months, Howard has instantly become "The Man" in Hollywood. Indefinitely.
The Lakers aren't just Superman's team for a game or two or 10 while Kobe nurses a sprained ankle. He's recovering from a ruptured Achilles. He might not even return in time for the start of the 2013-14 season.
Until then, the Lakers are Howard's. For the remainder of the regular season and through the playoffs (should they make it), they're his team.
And that's how it should stay. With or without Kobe.
Consider Bryant's injury a passing of the torch. He has been the face of Tinseltown for nearly two decades. He's carried this team for almost half his life. Now, it's someone else's turn. It's Howard's turn.
Not to say that the Lakers don't need Kobe, because they do. Whatever the capacity, they need him. But they need Howard more.
In Los Angeles' first game since Bryant went down, Howard propelled the Lakers to victory over the San Antonio Spurs with 26 points, 17 rebounds, three blocks and two steals on 9-of-15 shooting. The ball lived in the post (or rather, his hands) on offense, and it became evident from the opening tip that he was going to put the Lakers on his back and carry them the way Kobe has for so many years. And the way he must moving forward.
On a superteam like the Lakers, the idea of one player bearing the burden of the entire roster and city almost negates the essence of a star-studded assembly. Yet, that's not what I'm referring to. Not exactly.
As long as the Lakers are fielding a faction awash with perennial All-Stars, there should never come a time where they rely on one player to do all the work. They crossed that bridge with Kobe for most of this season, and it's left them clinging to eighth place in the Western Conference.
What Los Angeles needs is for Howard to be "that guy," the one through whom the offense is run and the player the organization builds around. He's no longer here to complement Bryant; the Mamba is there to assist him.
Kobe can and will continue to be the face of the franchise. After five championships, it's inconceivable to believe he wouldn't be. And we're not implying that he has to cease being the hard-nosed competitor he has always been. It's just time for him to admit this is Howard's team.
Of course, before we implore Kobe to make any more concessions, Howard must return to Los Angeles. He's an unrestricted free agent upon season's end and has remained noncommittal about his future with the Lakers beyond this year.
Behind closed doors, though, Howard may have made his decision. And per Sam Amick of USA Today, he may remain with the Lakers:
While the center who will be a free agent this summer has continued his noncommittal stance about whether he will sign with the Lakers or head elsewhere, two people close to him said they fully expect him to return. The people spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity out of respect for Howard's decision to wait until the summer to make his final choice.
We could pretend that we're surprised, and some of us may very well be, but we shouldn't be. Remaining with the Lakers was always the smart move for Howard, both from a financial and competitive standpoint.
With the knowledge that Howard's return is probable, though, Los Angeles can now plan ahead. The team can establish the definitive hierarchy that has proved elusive all season long.
Now 34, Kobe isn't going to be around forever. His latest injury is only a piercing reminder of that. Someone was always going to have to take his place at some point, and with Howard in tow, that point is now.
Panic spread throughout the City of Angels once Bryant went down, and rightfully so. The notion that the Lakers are doomed without him, though, is dated.
The Lakers aren't a team comprised of one Kobe, a few Smush Parkers and a Kwame Brown or two. There's Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, and even Metta World Peace. And then there's Howard.
Since joining the Lakers and playing alongside Bryant, certain memories appear to have lapsed. Howard single-handedly pushed the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009 and served as the be-all, end-all for that franchise for the better part of a decade. Leading a team is not a foreign concept to him.
In Los Angeles, it has been. Whether you consider Kobe a safety net that Dwight has had the luxury of deferring to all season or a set of shackles that have held him back, Howard hasn't been, or had the opportunity to be, the player he was in Orlando.
One looks at his 17.1 points and 12.4 rebounds per game and shrugs. They're not the numbers he put up toward the tail end of his stay with the Magic, but he's been persevering through incessant back (and shoulder) pain for the entire year. A statistical decline was inevitable.
But it's not as if he's producing at such a rate while shooting a subpar percentage from the field. He's converting on 58.1 percent of his shots, better than last year. And it's not like his playing time has been tapered, either. He's logging 35.6 minutes a night.
Some of the numerical drops could be attributed to injury, but the decline in shot attempts per game is not one of them. Howard's usage rate (22.2) is the lowest it's been since the 2005-06 campaign, when he was but a sophomore. It's also nearly four percentage points lower from last season (26.1), when he posted 20.6 points per game, and five points south from 2010-11 (27.2), when he averaged 22.9.
Sacrifices need to made in the name of star power, but there is such a thing as too much. Not even Gasol (20.4) and Nash's (17.8) usage rates declined as much as Howard's.
The numbers wouldn't mean as much if the Lakers were winning, but they're not. At least, not as much as they were supposed to. Had they been losing even more when the ball runs through Howard, that would be a different story as well—but again, they're not.
That Howard scored 20 or more points just 27 times this season is indicative of his stymied role in the Lakers offense. He dropped at least 20 points on 27 separate occasions last year in what will have been 22 fewer games. He took 15 or more shots 21 times during last season as well, compared to the nine of this year.
That needs to change.
The Lakers are winning more than 74 percent of their games when Howard hits that 20-point mark, yet they've won just 53 percent overall. Knowing that he's averaged at least 20 points per bout in three of the last five seasons, there's no reasonable explanation for him sustaining that pace for just one-third of the season.
Are other mitigating factors at play? Absolutely.
There are times when he could have been more aggressive, when Kobe should have shot less. And yes, those injuries of his haven't helped. Moving into next season, his aggression shouldn't be an issue and neither should his health. And Bryant should understand his place next to Howard. Not in front of, and not necessarily behind either, but alongside.
These two can lead the Lakers together. It's preferable that they do. To actualize said vision, though, additional concessions must be made, and for the most part, they must be made by Bryant.
Kobe has made plenty of tactical sacrifices this season, most notably that of transitioning from a habitual jump shooter to distributional playmaker, but he hasn't had to make that one psychological offering that brings everything (including the statistics) together.
I'm referring, of course, to his ego.
Bryant is nothing if not relentlessly stubborn and overwhelmingly proud. In so many ways, his hubris is an asset. It's enabled him to miss more than 20 games in a single season just once throughout his 17-year career.
In other ways, his vanity has been a hindrance.
Prior to the start of the season, it was Kobe who maintained that the Lakers were still his team. Not "ours" or even "mine now, Dwight's later," but his. Even if that were true (and it was), that mindset isn't acceptable. Especially now.
Roughly one year through this current experiment, the Lakers have survived. They're a little worse for wear (Kobe specifically), but they're on the cusp of a playoff berth. Most importantly, Howard has spent a year under the suffocating presence of Bryant along with the media spotlight and still seems inclined to return.
Despite reports that stated exactly the contrary, Howard, knowing full well that Kobe will still be in Los Angeles, is prepared to subject himself to a future wrought with overpowering expectations and media coverage. And yes, a future that includes Kobe too.
To say he's embraced such prospects since day one would be inaccurate, but now he's at place where he can appreciate Bryant and understand what it means to play for the Lakers.
He has learned from Kobe himself (via Melissa Rohlin of the Los Angeles Times):
I watched Kobe all year, I watched a lot of the things he's done with this team. He's not one of those guys who's going to get in the locker room and be vocal. He's just going to do everything on the court. That's the way he shows his leadership, just by how hard he plays, how hard he trains. Other guys are the vocal guys. I believe I can do both. I've been trying to do that for the whole year and now with Kobe out, I understand I have to do more and be more for this team. This is a great opportunity for me and I believe I can do it.
It's now up to Kobe to believe Dwight can do it as well. Not just for one game or the rest of this season, but into next year and beyond.
Even before Kobe retires, Howard needs to do more for the Lakers, but he has to be allowed to do it. If that consists of Bryant assuming more of a Coach Vino role and taking the reins on offense only to draw up plays specifically for Howard, then so be it.
Howard is ready to do more. The Lakers are ready and in need of the same. And Bryant's latest bout with mortality is brutal proof that he is ready as well.
Never mind preserving Kobe's legacy as an alpha dog. This was never about that. He'll always be the Black Mamba, one of the most amazing scorers the NBA has ever seen, and he'll always represent everything the Lakers stand for—winning.
Nearly two decades into his stint, this is about the franchise itself more so than Bryant. It's about what (and who) gives the Lakers more flexibility moving forward, about what allows them to establish a more lasting blueprint.
It's about what's best for them and their future and everyone involved. Kobe included.
And what's best for the Lakers, for Howard and even for Kobe, is pushing Dwight to the forefront of their game plan and their pecking order. Immediately and indefinitely.
"Well the future is now," coach Mike D'Antoni said of Howard (via Amick). "I think he's up to the challenge."
Howard is. He will be. And hopefully after watching what the Lakers are like with him as their primary mast, so will Kobe.
*Unless otherwise noted, all stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference.
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