EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Good Samaritan Steve Nash and badass Kobe Bryant are actually a lot alike.
They view themselves as underdogs who, bottom line, have worked their tails off to achieve greatness through nontraditional career paths.
So when those legends get lined up for a championship run only to find a younger prized specimen not pouring his mental and physical best into the cause, it’s easy to draw a line, with the underdogs on one side staring resentfully at the dog on the other.
The initial moments of the Lakers’ future without adversity-averse Dwight Howard played out over the weekend with the opening of training camp. The overriding sentiment is that the absence of Howard has made everyone’s heart grow fonder for the game, each other and the opportunity to build a real team.
“Last year it just felt like we could never really get that good energy going for any consistent period of time,” Nash said Sunday, “whereas this year it feels a lot more fun and energetic to start.”
The Lakers will need a veritable great wall of commonality and connectedness—two of Nash’s all-time favorite words—to succeed without the defensive presence that still had Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak raving last week: “There’s nobody like him in the NBA.”
Bryant, however, is steadfast that Kupchak addressed serious Lakers roster deficiencies in length, speed and shooting. Even with Howard in Houston and Bryant noncommittal about opening night because of his torn Achilles tendon, Bryant said flatly: “Our expectations are to win a championship. That’s our expectation.”
Is it possible that the passive-aggressiveness that Howard hid behind his fun-loving smile was that hard to live with?
“Honestly, man, I really don’t give a (bleep),” Bryant said. “It is what it is. If he would’ve come back, it would’ve been great. If he didn’t, it’s not. It is what it is.”
Here’s Nash with a more delicate analysis from the same viewpoint:
“There’s a tremendous history here, and the fans are incredibly passionate,” Nash said. “They want people who are Lakers and want to be Lakers. Obviously, Dwight didn’t want to be here, and I think everybody moved on.”
Nash didn’t win over the fans in his first Lakers season either. He tried to come back and assume a full load after breaking his leg in the second game of the season, but faltered due to nerve damage from his back to his left hamstring.
Still, there was never any doubt within the Lakers’ circle that Nash tried. There was never any doubt in Bryant’s mind either.
So when you wonder what thorny issues await the Lakers as they ride this newfound harmony, it’s easy to latch on to the reality that there is only one ball for one Nash and one Bryant.
The most logical scenario to end the post-Dwight good vibrations is Nash wanting to play one way and Bryant wanting to play another.
There aren’t many historic NBA tandems comprising two truly great guards. (Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars? Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe?) Nash and Bryant might run into trouble with Mike D’Antoni rededicated to playing pick-and-roll Nash ball while Bryant is reluctant to relinquish control even to his helicopter pilot.
The higher-ups in the organization are hoping Bryant’s injury opens his mind further to the benefits he has always seen in operating behind the defense. If things are going well one way in D’Antoni’s first Lakers training camp, Bryant can fit himself into that flow.
Even as a headstrong 21-year-old, Bryant did that in Phil Jackson’s first Lakers training camp: Bryant broke his hand in the preseason, sat out and got the chance to see how that 1999-2000 NBA title team was coming together.
Nash is already on record as capable of sacrifice. Despite having accomplished so much more than Howard has in his career, Nash was the one willingly surrendering the ball with which he made so much magic. Nash became a spot-up shooter as the Lakers realized that Bryant creating for others was one of the few effective ways to bring last season’s team together.
Nash spoke repeatedly Sunday about the need for the Lakers to form more of an “identity” this season. When I asked Nash if he had in mind how his partnership with Bryant might help form that identity, he clearly wasn’t sure.
What he was sure about was that he and Bryant proved to each other they are able to pull together.
Nash said there’s something in that regard to build on, referring to “a lot of good signs last year in a difficult season where nothing was really going in a common direction.”
Howard’s unwillingness to pull in that common direction with Nash, Bryant and Pau Gasol last season has set the stage for the ultimate chemistry experiment.
The Lakers are back in the lab, excited about concocting something uncommonly honest and real.
And the first ingredient is mutual respect.
Kevin Ding is the Los Angeles Lakers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. He has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Lakers for the Orange County Register since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association; his column on Jeremy Lin won second place in 2012.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.