How Kobe Bryant Must Sell Los Angeles Lakers' Long-Term Future to Dwight Howard
If Kobe Bryant were in Mitch Kupchak's shoes, he'd have to do much more than just pick which kinds of players he wants to populate the Los Angeles Lakers' roster and crunch the numbers accordingly. So much of being a general manager in the NBA is about the ABCs of Salesmanship—Always Be Closing.
It's no wonder, then, that Kobe wants the Lakers to be the last ones to make their pitch to Dwight Howard before the All-Star center rules on his own free agency this summer, as he told Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles:
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.
Bryant, though, doesn't seem overly concerned by the possibility of Howard's departure because, like anyone with a good mind for personnel decisions (particularly one in charge of the Purple and Gold), he understands that there will always be opportunities to lure big names to LA down the road:
This franchise is a franchise that you really don't have to worry about too much, because no matter what happens, whether it's a year from now, two years from now, whatever the case may be, they're always going to find a way to have an impact on this league.
Of course, a line like that isn't going to entice Dwight to stay. He doesn't want to be told that he's replaceable, that there are plenty of fish in the sea and, therefore, that he's welcome to swim off to wherever he pleases. In all likelihood, Howard will be expecting a supercharged rendition of the fawning and pampering with which any elite high school athlete would be welcomed on his recruiting trips.
Or, in Dwight's case, the trips he never got to make because everyone and their mother knew that he would be jumping from Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy straight into the NBA draft back in 2004.
Thing is, Kobe's never been one to kiss up to anyone or sugarcoat anything.
Remember, it was Bryant who, back in February of 2012, allegedly told Dwight over the phone that Howard would be the third banana in LA's offense, behind Kobe and Pau Gasol, according to RealGM (h/t Matt Moore of Pro Basketball Talk).
Howard, though, is probably aware of Bryant's less artful approach to communication. He spent an entire season in the same locker room as the Mamba, dealing with gripes and snipes through the media and occasionally poking fun at the whole (perceived) mess.
And, really, such drama is nothing new for Dwight. He conjured up plenty of it during his last days with the Orlando Magic, though he might be loath to admit his complicity in the "Dwightmare," even though that fiasco was all about him.
Which is precisely where Kobe should start in his pitch. That is, he must remind Howard that the Lakers will ostensibly be his in short order, even though Bryant has yet to set a date for his retirement.
Kobe would also do well to focus on what Dwight can do for the Lakers, and not the other way around.
This past season did plenty to prove to Howard that wearing the Purple and Gold doesn't grant you immunity from criticism and ridicule. If anything, playing for LA's biggest sports attraction and the NBA's marquee franchise will only leave a polarizing player like Dwight more susceptible to the backlash that he seems to dread.
Just as it did in 2012-13, as folks from all corners questioned Dwight's heart, hustle and commitment to his craft while the big fella was battling through the lingering effects of back surgery. As Howard recently told 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.
In Dwight's mind, then, the question of "What can Purple and Gold do for you?" probably isn't accompanied by an appealing answer. If anything, his one year with the Lakers further exposed the flaws that first came to light with Orlando Magic, but were put on blast in a much bigger media market in LA.
As such, it'd behoove Bryant and the Lakers' pitch team to emphasize what Howard would bring to the table.
On the court, he's a dynamic rim protector, thrice recognized as the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year, who can single-handedly turn the tide of a game by challenging shots in the paint and disrupting the pick and roll.
When he's healthy, anyway. To that effect, Kobe could point to longtime head trainer Gary Vitti—to whom Dwight often referred affectionately as "Father Vitti"—and his familiarity with Howard's condition as an enticement, though, again, highlighting the Lakers' potential effect on Howard could be a treacherous approach to this matter.
But Dwight knows this, and he knows that he can be a difference-maker on the defensive end because he has been for nearly his entire career. He doesn't need anyone to tell him that.
What Howard's probably more interested in, and where Kobe will have to be extra careful in his wording of things, is his role in the Lakers' offense. For whatever reason (His view on the role of centers? His grasp of great big men in Lakers lore? His desire to prove a point?), Dwight seems to insist on getting the ball in the post and being granted the freedom to work with his back to the basket.
He wants this even though, as far as post-up players go, Howard was patently average last season. According to Synergy Sports, Howard shot 44.5 percent and turned the ball over 18.2 percent of the time when posting up. Moreover, his mark of 0.74 points per play in the post ranked just 121st among his peers in the NBA.
That's hardly becoming of an "elite" center like Dwight, though that's probably besides the point in this situation. Perhaps Howard thinks he'll fare better in such situations when he's healthy and/or when he has the proper personnel around him.
Whatever the case, it's on Kobe and the Lakers to oblige Howard's hopes if they want to keep him around. They'd be better off saving their battles over Dwight's excellence in the pick-and-roll for another day.
For now, it's up to Bryant to convince Howard that Mike D'Antoni and his soon-to-be-revamped coaching staff will utilize Howard in a way that suits Dwight's pursuits.
That shouldn't be too difficult, seeing how D'Antoni went out of his way to feature Howard down low this past season. Despite Mike's well-documented aversion to isolations and post-ups, Howard garnered nearly half of his possessions (45.2 percent, to be exact) on the block, per Synergy Sports.
To an extent, D'Antoni came to grasp his team's strengths, the biggest of which came inside with Dwight and Pau. There's a chance that he'll try to implement more elements of his signature spread pick-and-roll system with a full training camp at his disposal.
But if the Lakers can't get ahold of the proper personnel for it—which they'd be hard-pressed to do, given their dearth of financial flexibility under the collective bargaining agreement—then Mike might have no other choice but to embrace the inside-out style that, in some ways, is the antithesis of what he ran with the Phoenix Suns once upon a time.
Which, again, should be music to Dwight's ears, so long as Kobe complies. And Bryant should, given that Howard is the closest thing Kobe has to a meal ticket to the sixth championship he so covets. At 34 and with a busted foot, the clock on Kobe's career is ticking away and, as such, he can't afford to part ways with another powerful force like Dwight.
Unless Bryant would somehow find it amenable to wait out another rebuilding period and serve as a fringe piece on a contender when he's nearing his 20th year of service in the NBA. At this point, though, that wouldn't seem to be part of the plan, according to In Depth with Graham Bensinger).
That aside, Dwight has made it clear that he wants to win, as well he should.
Nothing cleanses a sullied reputation on par with Dwight's quite like winning. A championship might not land Howard in everyone's good graces, though it would at least affirm the place in the game that his endemic talent would suggest he should occupy.
To that end, Kobe and the Lakers can make a convincing case. They can point to the team's 28-12 finish to the regular season and what that says about this group's capabilities when there's some semblance of health. They can pump Howard up about a restful offseason in which he, Kobe, Pau and Nash will devote much of their time and energy toward getting fit for the upcoming campaign.
And then, they can talk about Dwight dominating while Bryant eases himself back in after Achilles surgery and about the positive effect of having a (relatively) stable coaching situation that, hopefully, has established trust with all facets of the organization after the aforementioned finish.
What should Dwight do this summer?
In the long term, Kobe can direct Dwight to the summer of 2014, when the Lakers, for the first time in years, will have oodles of cap space at their disposal.
At present, LA has only Nash's $9.7 million on the books for 2014-15, and even that might be a moot point if Steve, who will be 40 by then, decides to call it a career.
The Lakers could hardly have picked a better year to clear their books, too. The market may well be loaded with big-name free agents by then, including those with early termination options (i.e. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony), those with player options (i.e. Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay), those who may be restricted (i.e. John Wall, Greg Monroe, Paul George, Lance Stephenson, Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors), and those who will be completely free to roam (i.e. Luol Deng, Danny Granger, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Kyle Lowry).
Not to mention Kobe and Pau, who will both be back on the market and could, hypothetically, re-up in LA at a fraction of what they're currently making.
That's a lot of recognizable names, many (if not most) of whom won't actually be available, whether they sign extensions, are retained by their respective teams after fielding offer sheets, or don't exercise opt-out clauses in their contracts. Still, the potential is there for the Lakers to throw around their weight in an attempt to reload for another title run in a big, bold way.
It's a risky approach that's rife with uncertainty. Then again, so is this summer, thanks in no small part to the fickle feelings of Dwight Howard.
If Kobe and the Lakers can convince someone as unpredictable as Dwight to stay in LA for upwards of $118 million this summer (a tough sell...or not), then who's to say that they can't or won't have similar success with another superstar or two in 13 months?
Certainly, that pitch would have to pique Howard's interest, so long as Kobe's delivery rings true.
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