No one in Laker-land wants to call the differences between Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard a feud, especially the players themselves. But the two superstars are clearly at odds with one another in a season marred by underachievement.
Maybe it's the personality of jovial Howard clashing with the assassin-like mentality of Bryant. Or perhaps it's two alpha males battling over touches (hint: Bryant wins -- he always wins when it comes to touches). It was a match made in basketball heaven flipped upside down in 2012-13, a season in which the Lakers are reeling and fighting to stay relevant in the Western Conference.
Howard and Bryant were supposed to be the cornerstones to an elite team. At 25-29 through the All-Star break, they've been anything but, and appear distant. While Blake Griffin and Chris Paul sat next each other as Los Angeles Clippers teammates throughout All-Star Saturday Night, Bryant and Howard didn't appear to interact at all.
Where did it all go wrong? Was it ever right in the first place? Here's a timeline of their relationship this year and how it went further south over time that explores those questions:
Early signs of potential turmoil -- Summer of 2012
Howard had reservations about coming to L.A. because he knew how demanding Bryant was as a teammate after playing with him on multiple All-Star teams and in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
After eight seasons of being the featured player in a small market, the Lakers felt the big stage would persuade Howard to stay in L.A. after becoming a free agent. But a season of turmoil has the media and the entire league scrambling to find out what's next.
While true, this set the tone early for what's transpired since.
Ground rules established for 2012-13
Kobe Bryant set the tone early by declaring that the Lakers were his team when asked prior to the season starting. It manifested itself on the court early on as Bryant took the reigns offensively and shot the ball 21.5 times per game in October-December before taking on more of a facilitator role in the recent months. He's taken 19.3 shots per contest in the months of January and February thorugh All-Star weekend.
Howard had his reservations then, but still towed the company line back then when asked what he thought about Bryant's assertion.
"Kobe is the leader as of today, and this year, and whenever he's playing, because he's been there, he knows how to win, he knows how to perform in the clutch moments," Howard told the Los Angeles Times in October.
New drama for a new year-- January 1, 2013
Allegedly, after the New Year's Day loss Bryant and Howard almost came to fisticuffs.
The alleged fight that never really took place (but probably really did to some degree) led Bryant and Howard to mock it via Twitter on Jan. 7. This came after a week of media speculation as to what really happened between the two players. No matter what team sources say did or didn't happen, it was clear that after a dismal start to 2013, Bryant and Howard weren't on the same page on the floor.
"The meeting" -- January 23, 2013
The Lakers had a private meeting before the end of a three-game road trip in Memphis, and the two biggest stars were at the center of reports on what transpired. According to Yahoo! Sports NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski, Bryant challenged Howard at that point in front of the rest of the team. It appeared to work, as L.A. went 7-3 in their next 10 games after the loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Unfortunately, an injury to Pau Gasol and aggravations to Howard's torn labrum took place and augmented the issues already facing the team.
The biggest taboo in sports -- February 6, 2013
Kobe Bryant has no filter at this stage of his career. He knows his time is short and has a small window to capture his sixth NBA championship, so he's not going to sugarcoat anything. With that in mind, he's been openly critical of Howard's handling of his shoulder injury.
"We don't have time for (Howard's shoulder) to heal," Bryant said in an exclusive interview with ESPNBoston.com's Jackie MacMullan. "We need some urgency."
Howard didn't come out and say he took exception to the way Bryant indirectly criticized him, but he got defensive when asked about the matter and was obviously upset about it.
Howard responded to with visible emotion when asked about Bryant's comments.
"This is my career. If I go down, then what?" Howard said while obviously upset. "Everybody's life is going to go on."
It's the biggest taboo in sports for athletes to question one another's injuries. Bryant is wired differently than most, so what he's willing to play thorugh is usually different than other players. His comments towards Howard have left the relationship salty at best, and it's easy to see on the floor.
Bryant and Howard need one another
Bryant can't win a title alone, and it stands to reason that he can't even do it with his teammates this season. But for the Lakers to have any chance whatsoever at making the postseason, Howard and Bryant will need to coexist and be at their best.
The Lakers as constructed are an old and slow team. They have major liabilities on the perimeter and need Howard to be engaged and active on the defensive end. Though he's averaging 2.3 blocks per game, which is above his career average of 2.1, he's not changing shots the way he is capable of on a consistent basis. That's precisely what the Lakers need him to do.
It's hard for him to be engaged throughout the entire game because he's not getting the touches and shots he's used to (10.2 field goal attempts per game in 2012-13 vs. 13.4 in '11-12), and the play style doesn't suit him.
Still, he and Bryant have to find away to end the feud that allegedly isn't happening and work through their differences from a personality perspective -- especially on the court.
There's a major three-letter network that claims they know drama, but no one knows it like the Lakers.
Michael C. Jones covers the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA. He contributes regularly to SBNation.com and Examiner.com as a Southern California-based sports journalist. He is also the Editor of Sports Out West.
Catch up with him on Twitter @MikeJonesTweets