The difference between the Clippers and Lakers didn’t just rest on young vs. old, Lob City vs. Slowtime and Los Angeles’ most ridiculed franchise suddenly boding superior against Los Angeles’ most storied organization.
Lakers center Dwight Howard also noticed the difference between how both teams interacted with each other.
“Those guys on the Clippers team,” Howard said, “they really enjoy each other off the court and it shows.”
And what about the Lakers?
“We have to play like we like each other,” Howard said. “Even if we don’t want to be friends off the court, whatever that may be, when we step in between the lines or we step in the locker room or the gym, we have to respect each other and what we bring to the table.”
Howard stressed there’s no animosity between teammates. He just made that point to illustrate that the Lakers’ constructed super team hasn’t reached its full potential for reasons beyond age and injuries. Aside from learning each other’s on-court roles, Howard believes the Lakers haven’t built enough of a relationship to solidify that trust.
“It really starts off the court,” Howard argued. “I think you have to have that relationship and that chemistry off the court for it to really blossom off the court. Those guys on the Clippers team. They really enjoy each other off the court and it shows.”
With the Lakers? Not so much.
After Clippers forward Blake Griffin threw down a wide-open one-handed dunk, Howard and Lakers guard Steve Nash exchanged words over the failed defensive rotation. A similar discussion happened last week when Nuggets center JaVale McGee raced down the lane unguarded for an easy dunk.
Even worse, Lakers forward Jordan Hill injured his right ankle and no one even attended to him.
“I think it was a lapse. I don’t think it was meant [out of malice],” D’Antoni said of the team’s lack of a reaction to Hill’s injury. “It’s something we addressed and talked about.”
D’Antoni had an idea on how to improve such awareness.
“I don’t know if anybody has the formula for making the chemistry right,” he said. “But I know if everyone takes personal responsibility and plays hard, it will work itself out. It’s amazing how you quit talking and pointing and rationalizing and playing as hard as you can play. We’ll be fine.”
That hasn’t happened much this season.
Bryant has frequently lamented the team’s old age for a huge reason why it struggles on transition defense. Pau Gasol has expressed desire to be featured more in the post. Howard has constantly griped about the Lakers’ poor defensive rotations. Lakers reserve forward Antawn Jamison expressed annoyance D’Antoni didn’t address his bench demotion directly to him, a stretch that resulted in sitting out six consecutive games.
“We need to play hard. We need to take accountability, each one of us,” D’Antoni said. “‘What’s in it for me?’ We need to get that out of our vocabulary and wonder what’s best for the Lakers.”
And he sounded somewhat skeptical to what degree that had to with off-court chemistry. Instead, D’Antoni pointed to the lack of familiarity Howard and Nash have on pick-and-roll plays and the lack of training camp to go over all concepts.
“I played on a lot of teams and I never really hung out with guys all the time,” D’Antoni said. “I don’t think you have to love each other. But you have to respect each other with what they do on the court.”
Plenty point to the Lakers three-peat years during the 2000-2002 seasons as evidence that chemistry can be overblown. Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal won such titles despite having an ongoing adversarial relationship.
“That was a different dynamic. Shaq and I were a different dynamic,” Bryant said. “That type of duo, you’re not going to find another duo like that ever. There were other duos that were better than us, (Scottie) Pippen and (Michael) Jordan. But you’ll never find a duo with two dominant personalities like myself and Shaquille. That was kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
And how did Bryant and O’Neal manage to make it work?
“We did. We won three straight,” Bryant said, referencing the Lakers’ three-peat from 2000-02. “One of them has to sacrifice. I sacrificed quite a bit with individual numbers and MVPs and NBA Finals and all this other stuff. Phil (Jackson) used to come to us as a team and let me take over in the march to the Finals. Then in the Finals against Eastern Conference teams that didn’t have any centers, we went through Shaq. Those are things I was willing to sacrifice. You have to have that sacrifice to make that dynamic work.”
But Bryant doesn’t see similarities between his dynamic with O’Neal and Howard.
“It’s not the same thing. On that team, it was me and Shaq and role players, who were excellent role players. Here, it’s me, Dwight, Steve and Pau (Gasol). We play to each other’s strengths. Steve is the best facilitating guard. Pau is the best facilitating big man. The ball goes through those guys, and it allows them to make everybody better. It’s really that simple.”
Howard sounded somewhat surprised on how Bryant characterized his role on those teams.
“He took a back seat?” Howard asked. “I was super young, so I really don’t remember too much from those championship runs.”
Does Howard at least have an alpha-male personality like O’Neal’s?
“You can’t look at it as the alpha male. It’s basketball. We’re not a pack of wolves,” Howard said. “There’s different ways to lead a team. Sometimes you have to follow to learn how to lead. I’ve done an excellent job with guys of being somebody they can all come to if they have a problem.
“But if they’re not working the way they need to work, I’m the guy that will tell ’em, ‘Hey, you need to get in the weight room or get some extra shots up.’ That’s where I come in. I don’t have to bark about it to you guys or to the team.”
Instead, Howard prefers a more subtle approach.
“If you’re an alpha male, you don’t have to always show that you’re the alpha male,” he said. “Just be who you are. You come in the room, people know you’re there. My presence is felt every day, and I don’t have to come here and growl and snarl at people. I don’t have to do all that. [My teammates] like when I come in, have fun and enjoy myself. Because they want to have fun and enjoy themselves, too. “If they can’t do it, it’s not a great working environment.
“I don’t think you guys would want to come into work with a boss that’s always telling you what to do,” Howard continued. “If you see the boss being at ease and having fun doing it, then you’re going to have fun doing that. That’s who I am. I’ve been an alpha male my whole life, but I don’t go pissing everywhere to show people that I’m an alpha male. I just need to be who I am.”
But for now, that hasn’t been enough to ensure the Lakers remain a tight-knit group. Not even Howard’s charismatic personality.
“It can bring a lot of people together,” Howard said. “But it takes everybody’s concerted effort to make it happen.”
Howard believes that will happen eventually.
“It takes time to develop that,” Howard said. You just don’t come together and then expect to be best friends right away. It just doesn’t happen like that. The Clippers were the same way. They all came in, and it wasn’t like they were the best of friends, but they grew to love each other and they play like it.”
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Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org