LOS ANGELES — Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol have distinctly different legacies in Los Angeles, but these days they share a link: They're moving on in life as former Lakers, having left Kobe Bryant behind.
And in the established and admittedly irresistible tradition of NBA scheduling with a vengeful accent on the not-so-dearly departed, Bryant will be going up against Howard on opening night and against Gasol on Christmas Day in two of the Lakers' and the league's highest-profile games of the 2014-15 season.
Although the schedule won't be officially announced until NBA TV unveils it at 3 p.m. Pacific time Wednesday, the Lakers are set to face Howard and the Houston Rockets at Staples Center on Oct. 28 and visit Gasol and the Chicago Bulls on Dec. 25, according to league sources. The games will mark the first times Bryant plays against Howard and Gasol as former teammates.
As an added boost to the old revenge angle, Lakers point guard Jeremy Lin (former Rocket) and forward Carlos Boozer (former Bull) can circle those same dates on the calendar. Even better!
The Dwight-less Lakers were relevant last year, too, playing (and beating) the Los Angeles Clippers as part of the NBA's TNT opening night showcase. With Bryant plotting his return, it's logical that the league thinks enough of the Lakers to feature them again on the opening Tuesday night broadcast.
But it's a testament to how much the Lakers' past remains prominent in their future when the NBA makes Bryant's first game back from Achilles and knee injuries last season against the guy who deserted him while he was down.
No matter how much diehard Lakers fans are ready to embrace Julius Randle and Byron Scott and savor whatever small victories they earn along the rebuilding road, the reality is that the Lakers' 2012-13 car wreck was massive enough for rubbernecking still to be taking place years later.
Bryant, Howard, Gasol and Steve Nash were supposed to make magic as Lakers, but they so didn't. And just as we don't want to forget underdogs who rise to stunning success, we don't want to let favorites forget their epic fails.
Bryant's injuries meant he didn't play against the Rockets last season, which was Howard's first after snubbing the Lakers' "Stay" ad campaign to move to Houston. Now Gasol, whom Bryant has said he considers "a brother," has left the Lakers via free agency in hopes of winning his first NBA title without Bryant in Chicago.
We could argue for years about which was truly the first domino in the Lakers' 2012-13 mess. Nash suffering what would be a career-threatening injury in just his second game as a Laker certainly tilted the court immediately into an uphill battle.
But would Nash have even been effective in Mike Brown's undefined offense (or Phil Jackson's triangle offense)? Would Gasol have ever been effective at forward in Mike D'Antoni's spread-floor offense? Did the team ever have any real chance on defense or at greatness with Howard never buying into being a Laker?
As intriguing as those questions remain, the guy who is being scheduled to play those mind games on opening night and Christmas Day most assuredly has already left them behind.
Bryant has been known to hold a grudge, but his modus operandi is just as certainly not to wallow. He is all about going onto the next thing he can control, and right now that's his body, mindset and whatever ways—individual and team—he can continue his pursuit of excellence.
If the Lakers are to have a successful season, that's the theme that must pervade: forward progress.
Bryant will need to be healthy and strong enough to make his comeback a singular story of inspiration that transcends whether the guy he's scoring over is evil Dwight or good Pau. Scott, Lin, Nash and Boozer will all have to be rowing meaningfully in that same boat toward individual redemption, and guys such as Randle, Jordan Hill, Nick Young, Ed Davis, Ryan Kelly, Xavier Henry and Robert Sacre will all need to have a lot of look-what-I-can-do nights.
If not, then it's going to be a long season in which the most meaningful storylines are indeed about the opponents and the past.
The only good news on that front is that Gasol, even with his clear decline, is a lot more likely than Howard to be the one winning the post-Lakers title this season.
The Rockets were weakened by Chris Bosh not coming and by Chandler Parsons going, while it's nearly impossible to find anyone with the Lakers who begrudges Gasol future success. Given the obvious defensive deficiencies on LeBron James' new Cleveland team, Gasol has an excellent chance at following Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau into another immediate NBA Finals.
Yes, there are those with the Lakers who were disappointed with Gasol's level of aggressiveness and commitment to earn the massive contract extension Jerry Buss gave him. But if the Lakers are OK with having to visit anyone on Christmas, it's Gasol.
The Lakers haven't had to hit the holiday road often. They've played on Christmas every year since 1999, and the only times in that 15-year span they've had to load up their sleigh and leave Staples were in 2005 and 2006 to play at Miami.
Those games followed the original Kobe-Shaq Christmas Ice Show at Staples in '04, and that three-game Christmas series after their breakup just goes to show how the NBA tries to help out: by giving families at home for the holidays the chance to bond together while watching people on TV not get along!
Although Gasol did choose to leave the Lakers, it's different in this case. Christmas might pit brother against brother, but you know Kobe and Pau will have a heck of a hug right after.
What Bryant will have to prove that night and every other is that the Lakers' season isn't about the guys they no longer have.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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