HOUSTON – Jodie Meeks was and still is tight with Dwight Howard.
Meeks was and still is tight with Kobe Bryant.
Sit and talk with Meeks about what comprises his respective relationships with the short-lived Laker and the Laker for life, and the messy, murky failure of Dwight and Kobe connecting crystallizes into complete sense.
Meeks and Howard joined the Lakers together a year ago and hit it off quickly.
“We kind of have the same personality—just laid-back—off the court,” Meeks said Wednesday. “I don’t really go out. I don’t drink, anything like that. Just play video games all day. Madden, 2K.”
The Lakers get to see Howard at work firsthand in Rockets red for the first time Thursday night, but Howard has kept in touch with Meeks.
“I still talk to him,” Meeks said. “We never even talk about basketball, though.”
Which brings us to the crux of Meeks’ very different relationship with Bryant, which he explains this way: “Same personality on the court, so we kind of connect that way,” Meeks said. “We’re serious, we want to win, we’re scorers—though I’m not quite at his level. Same demeanor on the court. I’m always asking questions how to get better, and he has been around so long, he gives me little pointers.”
If you’re Jodie Meeks, you can pick and choose what you like about each guy and enjoy the benefits.
If you’re the Lakers organization, you needed Bryant and Howard to respect those differences and appreciate that there’s some value in each way of life. It's the same way the hard-driving Bryant and highly entertaining Shaquille O’Neal managed to gravitate toward balance during their best stretches.
But there were so many differences and so much pressure in one season with Howard’s free agency looming that there wasn’t enough time for the Kobe-Dwight relationship to grow naturally. They also came at it from selfish perspectives, Bryant declaring it “my team” from the start and Howard having no desire to work hard in a situation where he wasn’t going to be heralded as the franchise savior.
“It’s not just one thing,” Meeks said. “If we knew, maybe Dwight would still be here. Those things sometimes don’t work out. We tried last year. We had some success doing it, but in the end, it just didn’t work out.”
In the end, let’s remember, it wasn’t as bad as it has become since Howard bolted. The big man showed increased respect for Bryant late last season and a willingness to play an integral role as the team's defensive stopper. Though Howard failed to inspire the team in its first-round playoff disaster opposite San Antonio, the Lakers did go 28-12 in the 40 games before Bryant tore his Achilles.
Regarding that late-season chemistry being the start of something, Meeks said, “I was hoping. They played well together the times they were in.”
Ultimately, though, what Bryant was offering—the kind of stuff Meeks can’t get enough of in his desire to improve—wasn’t what Howard really wanted. There was no denying, in the eyes of Bryant, Meeks or anyone else, Howard’s lack of professionalism.
This wasn’t like what happened to Karl Malone and Gary Payton in the crossfire of the 2003-04 campaign with Shaq and Kobe. What tips the scales here is that Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and all Lakers coaches know the truth about Howard’s unwillingness to play team ball for the greater good.
The complaint was not that he wasn’t his usual, fantastic physical self; it was that he didn’t try to do whatever his body did allow. Effort, not Howard’s usual explosions, was what the Lakers sought, so they grew angry when they couldn't find it.
“We all had issues,” Gasol said of Howard’s health problems last season.
It didn’t help that Howard cared more about his post-up touches than trying to glean wisdom from Bryant, Gasol and Nash.
“You get three Hall of Famers on the floor at the same time,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said Wednesday, shaking his head. “Too bad you’re not the No. 1 guy we go to.”
Anyone who excuses Howard purely as coming off back surgery—or is foolish enough to believe his ego won’t re-emerge after this initial honeymoon period in Houston—is completely out of touch with the reality of who he revealed himself to be in recent seasons in Orlando and Los Angeles.
Sure, Howard wants to win, but he wants far more to have things go his way. He isn’t driven to succeed from within. He is an immensely talented player who is used to everything coming easy.
And he absolutely took the easy way out by coming to Houston, where there are no elder statesmen making demands on him. The other superstar’s commitment to his craft will come under scrutiny as soon as people get to know him better, too.
But that’s who Howard is. Even his friends know it; they just don’t condemn him for it.
He’s not a bad guy. He just doesn’t see the big picture or even want to expand his horizons. He wants to be happy on a simple level.
That’s his choice.
What fans increasingly understand—Howard was even booed in Portland in his last game—is that, yes, we all like having a good time, playing video games, enjoying some laughs.
None of that, however, earns our respect.
All quotes, unless otherwise noted, were obtained firsthand.