The Lakers have not had much success with homegrown big men since Vlade Divac and Elden Campbell left the Forum. Those players, picked in back-to-back drafts in 1989 and 1990, were the last big men who could say they developed past role player status after Los Angeles drafted them. Paul Rogers (1997) never played a game, while Mark Madsen‘s best claim to glory is his dancing at the 2001 NBA title parade. Brian Cook‘s best year was 7.9 points per game in less than 20 minutes; Ronny Turiaf was solid but nothing you’d feed in the post. Now, star Dwight Howard comes via trade to replace L.A.’s best homegrown effort, Andrew Bynum. Even if Howard is only around for this one season in L.A., he can do one, easy thing to finish what Bynum never did.
It’s simple: Work with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In a Los Angeles Times story Tuesday night, Abdul-Jabbar talked openly about Howard and the parallels between their arrivals via trade. Abdul-Jabbar wasn’t thrilled with Milwaukee’s title prospects, while Howard was turned off from Orlando by a mix of commercial/team interests, the best anyone can guess. What stands out in the comments is Abdul-Jabbar’s mention that Bynum told the Lakers’ coaches he wasn’t interested in working with Abdul-Jabbar after a while. Bynum just wasn’t thrilled with working with the NBA’s greatest scorer.
Abdul-Jabbar said he saw Bynum’s focus wane when he worked with him from 2005 to 2009. He said his coaching duties were significantly scaled back in the 2008-09 season after Bynum expressed a lack of interest to the Lakers’ staff in working with Abdul-Jabbar.
“When I first started working with him, he was eager to learn,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “He appreciated me shortening the learning curve. Once he figured he did everything he wanted to do in terms of learning, he didn’t want me to bother him constantly going over the fundamentals.”
It seems to confirm, or at the very least add another piece of evidence to, the idea Bynum’s Lakers tenure was always missing one piece. Early it was his inconsistent health, but when that would subside, his play could never stabilize. Finally in All-Star shape the last season and a half, he never seemed to be fully in control of his PR. It was either because of a free, cheap shot on J.J. Barea in a blowout loss in the 2011 playoffs that painted him a bully and earned him a suspension; his straying from Mike Brown or Phil Jackson‘s coaching (which led to benchings he never responded well to); to comments like, “Closeout games are actually kind of easy.” The capstone was missing a meeting with GM Mitch Kupchak last season to discuss, you guessed it, his immature behavior. When all of his parts came together, it was the exception, not the rule. That he could be the NBA’s second-best center while functioning at far less than 100 percent of his ability was beside the point.
Understand that Howard could certainly incorporate a piece here or there from Abdul-Jabbar’s coaching, but he doesn’t need to. But working with him would be a welcome gesture by the player the Lakers will do anything for to bridge the awkward relationship between the team and its greatest player they don’t want much to do with. Some of that is on Abdul-Jabbar for saying he was disappointed by not having his own statue outside Staples Center (it came off as petty), but he’s been known to be a recluse. It’s a public relations move mostly for Howard, especially with another Laker big man legend, Shaq, staunchly against him. It also could serve as a reason to believe Howard’s own too-important-for-you days have receded.
If players are flocking to Hakeem Olajuwon for tutelage, Abdul-Jabbar seems like a natural guru on top of the mountain where big men would flock to. It hasn’t happened that way, of course (and consider maybe he hasn’t offered his services in the way Dream has). Like so many things with Howard, the notion of working with the Lakers’ most prolific center who shares a similar story is concentrated on image, unfortunately. He’s certainly done a lot of bridge-burning with fans around the league since last fall, when he demanded to be out of Orlando. Even as he stands firm he won’t sign an extension this season, doing this small step might be a way he brings a legend back into the fold and give Laker fans a reason to believe in his press-conference platitudes, without hesitation. It could also show the Bynum era â€” which has an overlap with Howard’s own erratic behavior â€” is over.
What do you think?
Follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewGreif.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.