To the surprise of many fans, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard recently hugged and shared a laugh together after playing against each other in Houston. Their playfulness toward each other signifies a joyful and relaxed Kobe that we’ve never seen before, and it’s a stark contrast from their behavior the last time they met when they engaged in an altercation in last year’s season opener.
After getting elbowed in the face twice by Howard, Bryant repeatedly yelled “soft!” at his former teammate and dared him to fight. Like Calvin Watkins of ESPN, many people in the basketball sphere take the vacuous and easy approach of attributing Bryant’s (and Lakers’ fans) disdain for Howard to bitterness toward the big man for leaving LA and “ruining” the Lakers’ chances of winning another championship — as if an aging, injury-riddled Howard who’s essentially served the role of a glorified role player the last couple of seasons would’ve catapulted the Lakers toward championship contention.
Rather, there’s a more nuanced explanation for Bryant’s displeasure with Howard and, as a Laker fan, my disenchantment with having the former Defensive Player of the Year on my favorite team. Although too many basketball minds falsely assume that Lakers fans simply hate Dwight for bolting to Houston, I wrote this tweet long before Howard decided to spurn the Lakers:
I wouldn't give a rats bottom if Dwight leaves
— Jonathan Asaad (@JohnnyAsada) April 27, 2013
In fact, the Lakers were in the midst of an impressive run to make the playoffs after a dreadful first half of the season when I posted this tweet. Bryant recently gave some insight as to why his leadership style clashed with the insouciant Howard.
“I think it’s hard for people to really understand,” Bryant said. “It may seem cold from a distance, but it’s not ever personal with me. You’ve got to get people to do their job and bring the best out of them and, like I said, a lot of times, it’s not very pleasing for my teammates to go through [that], but it is what it is. And I don’t think about it from a personal standpoint whatsoever.
“Listen, I’m a competitive person, and I don’t really take much crap on the court,” Bryant said. “I’m always going to be confrontational. Even with my friends, I’m going to be that way.”
Bryant is widely recognized for his indomitable will to succeed and an unheard of work ethic that even Olympic trainers are blown away by. After entering the league as an athletic freak who can jump out of the gym, Bryant developed a fundamentally sound post game under the tutelage of Hakeem Olajuwon and arguably the best mid-range shot in the NBA.
Incredibly, Phil Jackson revealed in an interview with the New York Post that Kobe trains harder than the greatest player to ever live, Michael Jordan, ever has. Bryant is extremely demanding of his teammates as a result, and it agitated Howard, who likes to be coddled and touted like he was in Orlando. After the messy situation in Los Angeles, Howard voiced his displeasure with working with Bryant.
“Before I got to the Lakers, I would talk to [Bryant]. He would really help me out on the low about how to become everything that I said I wanted to be. And I looked up to him. … I just felt so hurt and disappointed in the fact that the guy I was expecting to be somebody who was going to pass the torch, somebody that would say, ‘Dwight, I’ll take you under my wing and I’ll show you how to get it done’…there was none of that.”
Basically, Kobe didn’t baby him enough, and Howard expected to immediately be handed the keys to the franchise despite various factors that prevented him from being a viable go-to option, namely his considerable decline as a player due to injuries and the fact that he was absolutely awful at creating his own shot and scoring from the post. But that didn’t stop him from pouting and complaining about not getting enough post touches. Metta World Peace, who was then starting for the Lakers, wasn’t too thrilled about the situation, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN:
“That’s where I had an issue with Dwight sometimes because he’s strong and he can rebound, he can block shots, he can dunk. But his moves are not polished yet. So to want the ball every time … we’re going to give it to you, because the franchise called for that, but he isn’t going to score.”
Bryant’s occasional tendency to force the issue, especially when he has an off game, can understandably grate on his teammates. However, Bryant was shooting the ball at a career-high percentage when Dwight was in Purple and Gold, and if anyone adjusted their game to the situation, it was Bryant, who morphed into a savvy facilitator that we’d never before seen from him (averaging 7.5 assists per game in the final 36 games of the season).
Howard’s irrational longing to be lauded like Superman took precedence over logically and tactically and humbly figuring out a way to turn LA’s season around. He was too busy fumbling the ball and bricking hook shots in the post in an attempt to appease Shaq, who has criticized Howard multiple times for not being a traditional back-to-the-basket center, instead of forming what was supposed to be an unstoppable pick-and-roll combination with Steve Nash (or Kobe). Howard abandoned the one thing he’s good at offensively.
“He didn’t seem like he really wanted to do a pick-and-roll offense,” Steve Nash said to ESPN.
Thus, the “soft” label was attached to Howard. Not because he can’t play through an injury or dunk the ball powerfully (it’d be embarrassing if someone with his size and athleticism couldn’t), but because of his inability to adapt to difficult situations and eagerness to be a people-pleaser. It’s why he fervently attempts to ingratiate himself with others by cracking five-year-old jokes and wearing a toothy smile.
It’s also why Howard vacillated between leaving and staying in Orlando out of fear that people would dislike him before finally stumbling in a Lakers uniform. The former slam dunk champion even admitted to Stephen A Smith that, despite making a shockingly high percentage of his free throws in practice and in his high school basketball games, he struggles to do so when the lights are on because he thinks too much about the people who heckle him and say he can’t make free throws:
Howard’s longing to be accepted and liked comes through strongly in many of his quotes (he’s used various injuries and bad situations he’s put himself in to spout “poor me” sentiments), as well as in his Epix documentary, Dwight Howard: In The Moment. And as aforementioned, his tentative mentality has impinged negatively upon his game. In addition to his struggles from the free throw line, Howard is still a player who relies almost completely upon his athleticism to be effective. As his athleticism continues to wane, the big man has shown no signs of evolving his game and adding the necessary fundamentals that would elongate his career.
The Houston Rockets currently find themselves in a similar dilemma as the 2013 Lakers: A championship-caliber team vastly underachieving while all of the noise, rumors and drama that have consistently followed Howard throughout his career have resurfaced.
It’s unsurprising that Kobe and Dwight, two completely paradoxical players, couldn’t coexist. Howard sought partiality from a Laker legend who’s brutally honest and confrontational. The happy-go-lucky big man hoped to become the franchise player (while forgoing any of the responsibility that comes with it) on a team run by a scrupulous perfectionist. In the end, Howard left to pursue acceptance elsewhere, and the Lakers are better off for it.