Very little could sour Kobe Bryant’s mood.
He took an overnight flight from Abu Dhabi to Los Angeles a mere three hours before the Lakers’ media day began Saturday at the team’s facility in El Segundo. No problem – Bryant slept for 10 hours on the plane. Bryant sounded unsure when he will return from healing his left Achilles’ tendon. No worries – Bryant says will remain patient. The Lakers’ championship prospects this season seem deem. Not an issue – Bryant still maintains optimism.
But there was one subject that soured Bryant’s mood in an otherwise joyful day.
The Lakers envisioned him as their franchise leaders after acquiring him last season in a four-team, 12-player trade from the Orlando Magic. Instead, Howard left for the Houston Rockets.
“I really don’t give a [expletive],” Bryant said. “It is what it is. If he came back, it would’ve been great. If he didn’t, then it’s not. It is what it is.”
Looking back, Bryant sensed Howard leaving for Houston after he met with the Lakers’ brass two days into free agency. That meeting included Howard voicing frustrations about last season, according to various league sources familiar with what was discussed in the meeting. It’s not unclear to what degree he addressed them. But Howard’s frustrations last season included Bryant’s demanding leadership style, coach Mike D’Antoni preferring more pick-and-rolls than post-ups in his offense, and Howard receiving less credit than he wanted for playing through a surgically repaired back and torn labrum in his right shoulder.
D’Antoni didn’t refer to Howard by name. But it was clear who he was aiming at when he made heart of last season’s team when several players, including Howard, Pau Gasol and Antawn Jamison complained about their role.
“When you hear some players saying, ‘I’ll do anything it takes to win, they never finish their statement,” D’Antoni said. “It’s , ‘If everything goes my way, I’m the focal point and I get the ball when I want it, then I’ll do anything it takes to win.’ That’s the way life is. Players know.”
Center Chris Kaman, whom the Lakers at the mini-mid level exception worth $3.2 million, even took shots at Howard on how his free agency “held up a lot of the bigs.” Still, Kaman believed Howard would drag out the process for so long that Kaman booked a vacation to Hawaii. But Howard met with five teams (Houston, Dallas, Golden State, Atlanta and the Lakers) before deciding his future in six days, and cutting Kaman’s vacation short.
“We were waiting to see what Dwight was going to do and where he was going to go,” Kaman said. “Once he made a decision, it opened up holes for other people.”
The Lakers have acknowledged the obvious talent dropoff stemmed with Howard’s departure both with his athleticism and defense. But they hope an added training camp, players more suited for D’Antoni’s system, a healthier roster and less drama surrounding the team will help the Lakers absorb Howard’s absence.
“My mind was open to either decision,” Gasol said. “He wanted to do what was best for him. But time will tell.”
Same thing with the Lakers. But for now, the Lakers seem to have a good riddance attitude toward Howard.
“Laker fans have such pride and passion for their team and history for the club. I think in the end, when Dwight didn’t want to be here, they were happy to move on,” Lakers guard Steve Nash said. “There’s a tremendous history here. The fans are incredibly passionate. I think they want people who are Lakers to want to be Lakers. Obviously Dwight didn’t want to be here. I think everybody kind of moved on.”
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