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So, maybe Kobe Bryant wasn't kidding about that "I'll kick everybody's ass in this locker room" thing.
Early Monday morning — following a 112-105 home loss to the Denver Nuggets, the Los Angeles Lakers' second loss to Denver in less than two weeks, their third straight defeat overall and their fourth in five games — Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News reported that things had nearly gotten physical between a frustrated Bryant and Lakers center Dwight Howard after the Jan. 1 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers that started L.A.'s current skid:
A league source told the Daily News that the Lakers stars got into a heated exchange following a New Year’s Day loss to the 76ers, and Bryant went for a low blow — referencing and agreeing with Shaquille O’Neal’s criticisms of Howard being soft.
Howard was restrained from going at his teammate, according to the source, and there have been rumblings from the center’s camp that he’s been unhappy with Bryant since earlier in the season.
Kobe jokes aside and with all due respect to Bondy, as ProBasketballTalk's Kurt Helin notes, there are some reasons to be skeptical about this.
For starters, it seems odd that a story of L.A. locker-room intrigue would be broken by a Brooklyn Nets beat man rather than than one of the legions of Laker-centric reporters on-site at Staples Center daily. It also seems weird that news of the near-throwdown would come a full week after it allegedly took place. Plus, it hinges on a single anonymous league source, which always makes you feel a bit weird. Oh, and a pair of Lakers team sources flatly denied to ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne that any altercation took place:
So there's that.
Another reason to take this all with a grain or two of salt: Bondy angles his averted-brawl report report toward the possibility that, months after the move to L.A. ended their pursuit of Howard, the continued unrest in Lakerland could result in the Nets resuming last season's chase of the six-time All-Star center. As the News notes (and I've written in the past), Howard stands to enter free agency this summer and could be willing to leave Hollywood in search of greener pastures.
Take the Lakers' ongoing struggles, Howard's lack of long-term L.A. commitment and his previously stated preference for a move to Brooklyn, add those to Nets center Brook Lopez having a stellar comeback season and the calendar showing just eight days left before Jan. 15, the first day the Nets could trade Lopez after signing him to a four-year max-level extension this summer, and you've got the stirrings of a situation in which L.A.-Brooklyn talks could start to make sense in fans' heads. Tossing out a story about a high-stakes altercation between the Lakers' top two stars into the mix sure seems like it could be a move designed to set their minds to racing. I've dug Bondy's work on the Nets beat and don't wish to throw any shade on him, but it seems prudent to wait to see some fire before believing the smoke in this instance.
Bondy's report of locker-room unrest follows a weekend that saw Howard talk about his team's lack of chemistry — especially compared to the Los Angeles Clippers, who beat their intra-arena rivals on Friday night — as the Lakers continue to scuffle along, according to ESPN Los Angeles' Shelburne:
"Those guys on the Clippers team, they really enjoy each other off the court and it shows," Howard said Saturday after Lakers practice. [...]
"It's something we have to do to get better," he said. "We have to play like we like each other. 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.
"It really starts off the court. I think you have to have that relationship and that chemistry off the court for it to really blossom on the court. It takes time to develop that. You just don't come together and then expect to be best friends right away. It just doesn't happen like that."
It might need to start off the court, but the Lakers' on-court relationships are the real problem right now, and nowhere is their lack of familiarity, camaraderie and togetherness more evident than on the defensive end. After that New Year's Day loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, Bryant cited the Lakers' age and lack of energy as ongoing issues — issues that, in the grand design of this year's L.A. squad, the import of the 27-year-old Howard was supposed to help resolve, presuming he was healthy after undergoing surgery in April to repair a herniated disk in his lower back.
About 40 percent of the way through the season, it remains evident that Howard is not back to 100 percent, and that's a massive problem, specifically when it results in an inability to be a consistently dominant defensive force that controls the paint, dominates the glass and covers up for the slow feet and mistake-prone decision-making of L.A.'s perimeter defenders. Despite claims that Mike D'Antoni's offense isn't working, it's the defense — including their transition defense, which has been lackadaisical at best for much of the season and was cut to ribbons by the Nuggets on Sunday — that continues to be the Lakers' largest, most glaring issue.
The Lakers are 19th in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions, just one-tenth of a point-per-100 possessions outside the 10 worst defenses in the league; that, not the NBA's sixth-most potent offense, is why the Lakers are 15-18, sitting in 11th place in a Western Conference they were picked to dominate. Whether or not any insults or punches are being thrown in the L.A. locker room these days, it sure seems like busting it back after missed shots and working harder on sliding to cut off dribble penetration would be better ways to use of any leftover Lakers' energy.