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In keeping with the theme of a star-crossed season, Gasol, Bryant's mate on two championship Lakers teams, tore the plantar fascia in his right foot on Feb. 5 and is not expected back until mid-March at the earliest.
But even before Gasol went down, he and D'Antoni had been having a rocky season, which is the biggest surprise of the coach's short L.A. tenure. D'Antoni had been looking forward to coaching the versatile 7-foot Spaniard since, as an assistant at both the 2008 and '12 Olympics, he had grown to respect Gasol's abilities as the star of his national team.
But the coach couldn't avoid what one Laker calls the D'Antoni Dilemma. Which is this: He doesn't like playing Howard and Gasol together for long stretches and, given his druthers, he prefers Gasol's game. But he has to give more minutes—and even more end-of-the-game minutes—to Howard, a monster center with monster numbers (except for his free throw percentage, which is 49.5%) and a monster $19.3 million contract. And so the coach ends up angering the other guy, who's also a $19 million player, albeit one with one more year on his contract.
"I don't want to go anywhere near that [issue]," says D'Antoni. "Just be clear, it's not me calling it a dilemma."
In a perfect world the coach would have found an offense that provided both Howard and Gasol enough interior touches while also allowing Bryant to roam far and wide and Nash to execute pick-and-rolls.
Perhaps that world doesn't exist. But D'Antoni considers both of his big stars to be centers, and he is not a center-oriented offensive coach. Further, he feels that having Gasol defend power forwards—particularly "stretch" fours, who shoot from outside—sometimes puts the Lakers at a disadvantage.
D'Antoni and Gasol had several sit-downs, including a dinner in Manhattan Beach. They are smart men who can talk to each other. But neither is happy with how things have turned out. Maybe the time apart—Gasol has been around while he's recovering, but it's not the same as being in uniform—will bring them closer together when he returns.
THE ITALIAN JOB
Bryant led the league in scoring for the first couple of months, and he did it by shooting close to 50%. But as the losses piled up, he consciously cut down his shots, either because coaches suggested it or because he concluded it was necessary. (Probably some combination of the two.) Everyone wondered whether this would be a passing fancy (literally), but he has kept it up, sometimes going to extremes, as he did in that win over Phoenix, when he didn't take a shot in the first half.