Some NBA superstars, like Los Angeles Clippers point guard (and soon-to-be free agent) Chris Paul, don't like it when people think they're pulling strings behind the scenes. Others, like Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, will gladly admit they're doing just that.
At least, that would seem to be the case in the wake of Kobe's revealing interview with Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com. When asked about what his role within the Lakers organization might be if Dwight Howard opts to sign elsewhere this summer, the Black Mamba replied matter-of-factly (as he has so often in this candid, "old man" mode of his):
It's gotten to a point at this stage in my career where those lines of communication are more open and we talk more frequently both with [general manager] Mitch [Kupchak] and [vice president of player personnel] Jimmy [Buss] and [vice president of business operations] Jeanie [Buss] to a certain extent. Those lines of communication are open.
As well they should be. Kobe's been an integral part of the Lakers for the better part of two decades now, and they went to great lengths to retool their roster last summer in an attempt to capitalize on his twilight.
Things didn't come together quite like LA had hoped, to say the least. Injuries decimated the roster from start to finish, with Kobe's torn Achilles toward the end of the 2012-13 season serving as the rotten cherry atop the most disappointing metaphorical cake in franchise history.
As a result, the Lakers now find themselves in much greater flux than they had originally anticipated. A subpar season has landed Dwight back on the fence, Pau Gasol (probably) on the trading block, and Steve Nash in the unfamiliar position of having to prove that he's still an ageless wonder.
Not to mention Kobe, who hopes to be back in time for opening night in 2013-14 but seems to understand that his latest injury is one from which he absolutely cannot rush back, as he told Dave McMenamin:
With the tendon, there's really only but so much you can do. There's a certain amount of time that they deem necessary for the tendon to heal where you don't overstretch it and now you never get that spring back.
So, you just have to be patient, let the tendon heal, and then when that moment comes when they say, 'OK, we can take off the regulator so to speak and now it's on you to train as hard as you can to get back to where you want to be,' that's going to be a good day.
Perhaps, then, Bryant will anticipate his own potential limitations when consulting with the Lakers on how to put together their roster over the next year or two. As dogged as Kobe may be in his determination to come back from a torn Achilles better than anyone ever has, he's also keenly aware of the ebb and flow of his own physical condition.
He's done well over the years to diversify his game, with low-post moves and a smoother jump shot, and shift his priorities, largely away from the defensive end, to compensate for his ever-more-limited corporeal reality.
Guards Who Can...Well, Guard
That being the case, Kobe's first order of business as "general manager"/backseat driver in Mitch Kupchak's Laker-mobile would be to target athletic perimeter defenders would could cover up Bryant's (and Steve Nash's) mistakes.
And this one, wherein Kobe doesn't rotate to help on the back end of a pick and roll (h/t Zach Lowe):
It's no wonder, then, that the Lakers ranked 19th in defensive efficiency during the regular season, allowing opponents to score 103.6 points per 100 possessions, and saw that number tick up to 105.4 whenever Kobe and Nash shared the floor, per NBA.com.
Past speculation concerning a swap of Pau Gasol for Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith made some sense in this regard. J-Smoove would've presumably injected the Lakers' defense with a much-needed dose of quickness, athleticism, strength and versatility on the perimeter.
But nothing came of that, and with Smith on the free-agent market and the Lakers capped out, acquiring him would require a bit more transactional trickery than before.
In the absence of such a shakeup, Kobe's Lakers would do well to comb the market for cheap, transient defenders who'd accept the veteran's minimum that LA could offer. Impending free agents like Ronnie Brewer, Keith Bogans and even the much-maligned Dahntay Jones come to mind.
Still, no defense with clear deficiencies on the perimeter can hope to be so much as league-average without a player who can protect the rim and recover quickly in the pick-and-roll. In this respect, retaining Dwight Howard's services for the foreseeable future makes plenty of sense for these Lakers, regardless of friction caused by a clash of personalities.
Granted, Howard's health and the extent to which he can rekindle his former defensive dominance is a real concern for any team that hopes to land the center's coveted signature. Years of foes hacking and slapping, pushing and shoving, poking and prodding at every turn contributed to Dwight's recent back and shoulder problems.
Unless Howard magically adds a jump shot to his game and steps away from the punishment inherent in the paint, he'll have to continue to contend with the beating and its deleterious physical effects.
Not exactly an encouraging prospect for a guy whose game is predicated so heavily on sheer strength and athleticism, the latter of which may never return to its former glory after last year's operation.
That being said, the Dwight we see in 2013-14 should be better than the Dwight we (and Kobe) watched throughout 2012-13. Howard has long maintained that he played at less-than-full capacity this past season after returning from back surgery. He reiterated as much during a recent interview with TJ Simers of the Los Angeles Times:
When I came back from my shoulder injury, some didn't think I was giving my all. And nobody wanted to hear what I said about coming off back surgery. It wasn't fair to me. I was on a walker and four months later playing basketball. I played hurt.
As his fitness and conditioning improved, so, too, did his on-court performance.
Hypothetically speaking, then, an offseason spent intermittently relaxing and working himself back into proper playing shape should do wonders for Howard's agility and ability to play big minutes without tiring. The absence of both of those attributes noticeably dragged down his play during his first (only?) season in purple and gold.
And if Dwight can run, jump and shuffle his feet with a measure of speed and timing that resembles anything close to his salad days as a three-time Defensive Player of the Year with the Orlando Magic, then he should be able to erase many of the defensive mistakes that Kobe and company are bound to make on the perimeter.
Feeding the Beast
Believe or not, Howard's presence on the offensive end could be a boon to Kobe's own prospects as well. According to NBA.com, the Lakers scored a strong 107.2 points per 100 possessions—a mark that would've ranked sixth in the league this past season—whenever those two shared the floor.
Moreover, Bryant was far and away Howard's most productive partner on the offensive end. Of the 328 assisted baskets that Dwight scored in 2012-13, 104 were set up by Kobe (per NBA.com). Next in line was Pau Gasol, with 57 Dwight helpers.
To be sure, Kobe should have been Howard's top assist man. Bryant dominated possession (with the third-highest usage rate in the NBA)—even more so with Nash so often sidelined by injury—and Dwight was easily his most attractive passing target.
With Bryant's help, Howard can restore his reputation as an offensive threat worthy of the double- and triple-teams he's so often commanded throughout his career.
What Dwight's post game lacks in fluidity and aesthetic value, it more than makes up for in productivity; he hasn't averaged 18.3 points per game on 57.7 percent shooting for his career as (for the most part) the No. 1 offensive option on his team by accident, you know.
There's plenty at stake for Kobe in Dwight's offensive success, as well—in a Jerry Maguire, "help me help you" way. The greater a threat Howard is, the more opposing defenses will be forced to focus on the big fella.
That means fewer defenders flying at Kobe and, in turn, more freedom of movement for the Mamba.
Which will be crucial if Bryant's mobility is, indeed, limited by his surgically repaired heel. If defenses are more concerned with Dwight and Pau in the middle, they'll be more liable to leave Kobe open for the sorts of jumpers on which his game will depend more heavily than ever. And, when he decides to drive, defenses will have to think twice about leaving Dwight to help on Bryant.
Shoot It and Boot It
Even more so if Kobe the GM can help to surround Kobe the Superstar with deadly shooters. The Steves (Nash and Blake) combined to hit 42.9 percent (129-of-301) of their three-point attempts—strong numbers, to say the least.
But those two missed a total of 69 games, while the rest of the Lakers shot a subpar 34.2 percent (586-of-1714) from beyond the arc. Metta World Peace (34.2 percent) was far too streaky, as was the case with Jodie Meeks (35.7 percent) and Antawn Jamison (36.1). Meeks and Jamison are both free agents and don't figure to return, in part because of poor play on the defensive end.
Finding wing players who can shoot and play defense in today's NBA is no easy task, as Zach Lowe recently noted. That doesn't mean, though, that the Lakers can't find one for their own purposes. Players of that ilk can and often are unearthed either in the second round of the NBA draft, in international leagues, or on the waiver wire.
Just ask the San Antonio Spurs about how they turned Danny Green into a key contributor on a title contender or Wesley Matthews about how he went from undrafted one year to handsomely paid by the Portland Trail Blazers the next.
What should be the Lakers' biggest focus this summer?
Perhaps Kobe's Lakers could take a chance on a former draft bust like Wesley Johnson, who'll be a free agent this year after flunking out with the Phoenix Suns this past season.
Or, perhaps there could be a trade in the offing. For instance, if Dwight decides he'd rather play for the Houston Rockets, the Lakers could work out a sign-and-trade in which they'd take back, say, Chandler Parsons (a "3-and-D" guy) and Omer Asik (a defensive-minded big man), among other pieces.
That is, in the event that Kobe can't sell Dwight with the recruiting pitch he's apparently preparing to give to the fickle All-Star (via Dave McMenamin):
For me, you kind of let him do his due diligence and then move in and talk to him and figure out if this is a place he wants to be. We all want him here. But then that's when the selling begins [after Howard is courted by other teams]. You don't start the selling process right before he goes and does all this stuff. You want to get the last word. You want to have the final word and the closing argument.
I'll give him a little opening statement, but then I have to make sure I have the final word.
Just as Kobe figures to have the final word on what kinds of personnel moves the Lakers pursue, with or without Howard in their corner.