LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers posed for their team picture Wednesday, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol front row center, with an empty seat between them occupied only by a basketball and the legend of Jerry Buss. It was a fitting snapshot of the 2012-13 Lakers, desperate to honor their late owner with one final push, despite the obvious gap that still separates their two giants.
The Lakers' great advantage this season should have been their size, given that nobody outside of Graceland could reasonably match up with Howard and Gasol, but they never discovered how to deploy all 14 feet in their favor. Mike Brown wanted to pair the towers inside, the way the Spurs did with David Robinson and Tim Duncan, but he was fired after five games. Mike D'Antoni replaced Brown and tried Howard in the post with Gasol on the perimeter, but that didn't work either. D'Antoni finally yanked Gasol from the starting lineup, not to punish him, but to ensure that he and Howard didn't step on each other's sneakers anymore.
Howard thrived without Gasol and Gasol thrived without Howard, and the Lakers stopped worrying about blending them because they took turns getting injured. When Howard tore the labrum in his shoulder, Gasol lifted the Lakers, and when Gasol tore the fascia in his foot, Howard stepped back in and did the same. They flourished as relay partners. Since Feb. 1, Gasol and Howard have not played a game together, and the Lakers are 16-7.
Gasol is expected to return from a six-week absence Friday against Washington, only now Howard is healthy. This should be a positive development for the Lakers, considering their flimsy front line and Gasol's sublime playmaking abilities, except D'Antoni will finally have to face the problem he put off months ago: how to mesh two Hall of Fame centers in a system that barely has room for one.
The Lakers have leaned on injuries as the alibi for their struggles, but in the rare instance they've started Howard, Gasol, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace, they're 0-5. And yet, that's exactly the lineup D'Antoni will depend on to earn a playoff spot and give somebody atop the Western Conference a scare. In addition to Gasol, the Lakers believe Bryant will come back Friday from his sprained ankle, putting them as close to full strength as at any point this season.
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The Lakers can preserve the No. 8 seed with Earl Clark as their starting power forward, but they can't upset anyone without solving the dilemma down low. The fear for D'Antoni is that Howard and Gasol clash again. The hope is that time apart has taught them to function together. There is no tangible reason why a combination that didn't work in the winter will suddenly click in the spring, but the Lakers have slowly sanded some of their rough edges, with Nash handling the ball, Bryant distributing it and Howard finding a second wind. The last major obstacle is the integration of Gasol.
"We can't do anything in the playoffs without Pau being comfortable," D'Antoni said. "Pau is too talented and too good, Dwight is too talented and too good, not to figure it out."
Gasol had three wonderful years in Los Angeles, and three wretched ones, with the Lakers attempting to trade him to Houston, marginalizing him in favor of Andrew Bynum and finally benching him for Howard. In a twist, they now need Gasol to spare them the ultimate embarrassment of missing the playoffs with a $100 million payroll.
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"It's difficult to put together all this talent and make everybody happy," Gasol said. "The roles are going to change and everybody is going to have to sacrifice -- some more than others -- but it's not easy to make those sacrifices as you go along because you might start thinking, 'Why isn't he making them?' and you fall into those traps. It's been a challenging year in all aspects: coaching changes, injuries, the team itself. But right now, it's all or nothing. At this point, we'll all be more locked into what we need to do as a team than worrying about us as individuals."
The trouble with the Howard-Gasol marriage was the space between them, or lack thereof. They both wanted to be on the block and, under D'Antoni's system, only one was permitted at a time. Their co-existence will hinge on compromise.
"Being able to get the rhythm down of not everybody just running to the post," D'Antoni said. "Being able to keep their spacing and understand, when Kobe has the ball, one gets to the baseline and one gets to the mid-post. I think we can do that."
D'Antoni insists Howard and Gasol sputtered largely because they were not healthy, and since Nash also wasn't healthy, they were exposed on defense and underutilized on offense.
"A lot of decisions were made when Steve wasn't on the floor and Dwight wasn't 100 percent and Pau wasn't playing real well or 100 percent," D'Antoni said. "So you think, 'That's not working, this isn't working,' but when they're all 100 percent it can work."
Thirteen games remain in the Lakers' telenovela of a season and they seem to have explored every angle, besides the obvious one. "Be big," Gasol said, which sounds so simple given their personnel, but has proved so challenging. Next season, the front row of the team picture will look different, because if Howard stays, Gasol will probably go. They have 13 games to play together, and if they can somehow bridge that gap in the middle, they'll have at least a few more.