Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash connected on the phone Monday night, discussing the parameters of a partnership that would’ve once seemed so improbable. Nash had the vision of joining the Los Angeles Lakers, and Bryant told him he wanted him there. This had come together so fast, so out of nowhere, Bryant is still calculating the possibilities of pairing two of a generation’s best talents and basketball minds.
This is the kind of cordial recruiting call that Bryant and Dwight Howard haven’t had, a silence existing for most of a year now. Bryant will not recruit Howard to reaffirm the Lakers as part of Howard's list of teams that he’s willing to accept a trade and sign a long-term extension. For several reasons – including Bryant's respect for teammate Andrew Bynum – the odds of Bryant picking up the phone and calling are remote. Bryant would welcome Howard as a teammate, sources say, but he’s shown no inclination to be part of a process of trying to convince him to come.
When they spoke several months ago about the possibility of Howard coming to the Lakers in a trade, Bryant and Howard pictured the center’s role through far different prisms. Howard wanted an offense to play through him far more often than not, and Bryant imagined the NBA’s best defender protecting the rim, rebounding and scoring as an offensive option beyond Bryant and Pau Gasol. The call ended uneasily, and sources say they haven’t had a meaningful conversation since then.
Howard has always wanted to play with a great point guard, and, perhaps, with the ball in Nash’s hands now, he’ll see the Lakers in a different way. Before Nash, Howard had been longing for life with Deron Williams and the Brooklyn Nets. Now, the Lakers have a generational point guard, and that could change everything.
[Related: Lakers land Steve Nash for draft picks]
The Orlando Magic want Bynum, and need to find a way through a deal with the Lakers – or perhaps the assistance of a third team – to land him. The Lakers want to win championships now, and here’s a question they’re asking themselves: With Howard still rehabilitating back surgery, do they risk a season where he's still physically recovering?
For the Lakers to make a deal for Howard, Orlando will push them to take on a long-term contract it wants to unload: Hedo Turkoglu or Jason Richardson. For all the local TV revenue that’s coming to the Buss family, they still get queasy over paying so much in luxury taxes. Still, Howard, 26, can be the Lakers' marketable Hollywood star once Bryant is gone. Bynum will never be that presence, even if he’s an excellent center.
In a lot of ways, the Lakers and Magic still need each other. The Magic can live with the Lakers sending two future first-round picks to the Suns for Nash, because acquiring Bynum would be such an upgrade over every other possible player available to them.
Nevertheless, the Lakers will consider how the arrival of Nash – and possibly free agent Grant Hill – could impact Bynum in the locker room. After Derek Fisher was traded in March, there was a sense within the Lakers that there was no older, calming influence to reign in Bynum when his moods, his disposition, went awry. Bryant has been an incredible force for Bynum's development, pushing him long and hard, but nurturer isn’t necessarily one of his gifts. There’s a sense that Nash could impact Bynum as a playmaker and a yang to Bryant’s yin.
Nash is 38, and while no NBA point guard has ever played this well, this deep, into his career, this is still a short-term, win-now move. Nash can be a conduit to bring these Lakers further together, make them a true contender again. The Lakers had wanted to know that Howard wanted them, that he wanted to take his turn in their long line of great centers, and that hasn’t happened for months. Howard wondered: Does Bryant want me? Well yes, Kobe would welcome Howard, but he isn’t going to risk alienating and disrespecting Bynum to court him. Make no mistake, Bryant and Howard have kept an uneasy distance, but so many league executives wonder why the Lakers would ever hesitate to make a move for Howard.
Once the Lakers have Howard's Bird Rights – once no one on the market can pay him more in the summer of 2013 – why would he ever leave? No matter what he threatens, everyone knows Howard will get maximum money on his Adidas contract extension in Los Angeles, a maximum $100 million playing contract and maximum adoration and adulation in Hollywood.
"I think with Nash in the house now, they wouldn’t need an assurance up front," one league executive tied closely to the Howard trade talks told Yahoo! Sports. "They know that Dwight can be impressionable and craves Hollywood. I think they would take that chance."
The Brooklyn Nets are still relentlessly working on a deal to secure Howard, and perhaps Howard wants to wait until they’ve exhausted every scenario with the Magic. Nevertheless, Orlando’s target for a Howard deal is still Bynum, still the Lakers. Sooner or later, Howard will understand that Kobe Bryant will never beg him to be a Laker, but the inevitable still awaits: If he wants championships and sneaker money and celebrity, there’s still just one place for him to go. Now, Steve Nash is waiting with the ball and a buffer. Yes, everyone’s waiting on Dwight Howard now.
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