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Lesson from the School of Yao: Los Angeles Lakers De-Emphasizing Superstars

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Lesson from the School of Yao: Los Angeles Lakers De-Emphasizing Superstars

BEIJING — The big reveal before the Los Angeles Lakers lost their exhibition game against the Golden State Warriors on Monday night was the launch of the first NBA Yao School.

The goal of this after-school program in Beijing and future schools is not to develop the best of the best the way the Chinese government has attempted to do with such strict determination. This, according to NBA commissioner David Stern, is to teach “teamwork, exercise, fitness and communication amongst people. And that was very important for Yao.”

NBA commissioner-to-be Adam Silver was specific about what isn’t very important to Yao, saying, “Our shared goal is to increase basketball participation throughout China, both boys and girls, and…not to focus just on elite players.”

And then, just before tipoff, the elite player who wasn’t even playing got all the cheers.

Kobe Bryant emerged from the locker room and received a roaring ovation for just standing on the court. Once the game started, it continued.

The MasterCard Center scoreboard operations director cut to shots of Bryant stoically watching the game, chewing gum (first half), not chewing gum (second half) and once animatedly talking to Wes Johnson—and the shots kept eliciting bigger cheers than the guys actually making baskets in the game.

The big reveal after the Lakers’ loss was Mike D’Antoni’s explicit doubt that Bryant, who tested himself with running Tuesday but is still not ready for on-court work, will come back from his Achilles tear by opening night.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

That just pushes this whole issue of a little great versus a lot of good further into the forefront of this Lakers season.

No matter the value of the lessons the NBA Yao School will teach, the NBA's winning model is to have superstars. The Lakers lost theirs over the summer and got nothing in return.

Dwight Howard did his part for the NBA in Asia last week with his new team, going with the Houston Rockets for games in the Philippines and Taiwan, and heard some boos and Kobe chants along the way.

Even though Howard has made regular trips to Asia to promote Adidas, his impact has been rather muted. Steve Nash’s new Lakers jersey was actually a better seller in China last season than Howard’s.

But it was actually D’Antoni who came the hardest against Howard on Tuesday. Asked about the Lakers moving on without Howard, D’Antoni answered with a single word: “Who?”

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

That’s how much he wants to push past what the Lakers failed to serve in their four-star restaurant last season. Never much of a star’s coach, aside from success with the common-man MVP Nash in Phoenix, D’Antoni has done wonders for a lot of no-name players.

And he likes the upgrade in team unity without Howard, to which Pau Gasol and Nick Young both alluded to after the latest game. Gasol said that has been a “really positive factor since day one,” and Young noted how “teammates getting along can make the game a lot better.”

In light of Jordan Hill’s poor shooting and constant moving picks and Shawne Williams’ struggle to stop power forwards, Chris Kaman seems to be seizing a starting job, and maybe even the title of fourth-best Lakers player.

D’Antoni vowed to those inside the organization after Howard left that Kaman and Gasol could work in his system, given Kaman’s shooting ability. Kaman hit all seven of his shots and had a team-high 10 rebounds Monday.

But the big man's sluggishness continues to hold back the Lakers on defense and cause turnovers on offense, and D’Antoni declined to say he is locking up any starting spot with Gasol.

“In spurts, we can definitely do it; that’s definite,” D’Antoni said. “But whether we start it or don’t start it—they’re both going to play big roles obviously, and we’ll have them in together. That’s still an ongoing evaluation.”

D’Antoni liked Young even better in this game, saying, “If Nick can play like that, we’ll be OK.”

Other days, it could be Jordan Farmar as the difference-maker in helping the Lakers play quicker and defend with more pressure.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Howard's absence creates more for many people to do.

By the time the NBA Yao School opens in February, we’ll see: Have the Lakers learned some lessons about non-superstar basketball, too? Or will that just be the time for Howard to get back to the NBA All-Star Game?

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