Chris Kaman could be the key to it all

ONTARIO, Calif. -- Stop it. Don't even say it out loud or you're going to regret it later.

Dwight Howard is way too good of a basketball player to suggest that some sort of addition by subtraction might happen with the Los Angeles Lakers now that he's in Houston. He was hurt all of last season and never felt comfortable with the organization or his teammates. But it really hasn't been that long since he was a defensive monster and legitimate MVP candidate. So stop that clich├ęd addition-by-subtraction talk. You don't just lose a talent like that and not feel it.

There is, though, something to the notion that the Lakers will be better in some areas without him. Pau Gasol, as you can already see from his limited preseason action, is going to start looking a lot more like the guy who won two NBA titles with the Lakers, and not the miscast stretch-forward who was forcibly demoted as a focal point of the offense to accommodate Andrew Bynum and then Howard.

Steve Nash and Steve Blake, if they stay healthy, are actually going to have a shot at running coach Mike D'Antoni's system the way it was intended to be run.

And Chris Kaman, the Lakers' unheralded consolation prize after losing Howard in free agency, might be the key to it all.

Yes, you read that correctly. Kaman might be the key to it all. Because what Kaman embodies is exactly the way the Lakers will be different this season without Howard.

They won't be as fast or quick or talented. But they will be more flexible. They will do things they may not want to do, and play roles they're not accustomed to.

Kaman isn't the perfect fit for a system like D'Antoni's by any stretch of the imagination. He's neither explosive nor exciting. Howard was supposed to be the bigger, badder version of the Phoenix-era Amar'e Stoudemire. A guy like Kaman would presumably be the last person you'd cast to play in an up-tempo, high-scoring attack like the one D'Antoni's teams normally use. But you know what? He's willing to try it. Heck, he's eager to try it.

"I'm flexible," Kaman said after scoring 12 points and grabbing seven rebounds in the Lakers' 90-88 exhibition win over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night at Citizens Business Bank Arena. "I can post up. I can shoot the ball. I can set a ball screen. I can pass the ball. I have good, well-rounded basketball knowledge and skills. I'm not like a superstar, but I'd like to think I do a decent job out there."

Howard, on the other hand, never got past the fact that the Lakers hired D'Antoni over Phil Jackson, whom Howard had asked for through his representative. Forget running D'Antoni's system. Forget even running the pick-and-roll.

Kaman, on the other hand, is going to do just about whatever D'Antoni asks him to try.

"This is the best training camp I've ever had," Kaman said. "He's an awesome guy. He's a player's coach. I don't know how he ever gets fired anywhere. I have a lot of respect for him."

There are going to be people whose eyes bug out when they read that quote. But Kaman was completely sincere.

"I think Coach D'Antoni is a very fair guy," Kaman said. "He lets everybody have an opportunity, and then you need to do well to keep getting opportunities."

There was a time in Kaman's career when he might have felt differently about playing such a complementary role, and being asked to sacrifice some of his game in the process. It wasn't that long ago that he was seen as a franchise center himself. The Clippers even gave him a five-year $52.5 million contract once upon a time.

But not after he has been humbled the way he has the last couple of years by injuries, being traded, and an underwhelming free-agent experience.

After what he has been through, Kaman's just thankful to be with a team that values and needs him.

"It's not about the minutes," Kaman said. "I just want the opportunity to play."

And in this system, he'll have that so long as he is willing to play a complementary role with Gasol.

"We knew Pau was great with the ball," Nash said. "But I thought Chris was terrific tonight with the ball and setting picks and moving so we didn't get stagnant.

"I was pleasantly surprised. I would say it exceeded my expectations."

Last season, Gasol's role was reversed. It was he who was asked to complement Howard. It was Gasol whose skills weren't being used correctly. He did it, too. He did it well, even. But there was never enough reciprocity with Howard. The compromise was too one-sided.

That's not to say Howard didn't bend a little. He bent a lot, from the way he was used to playing in Orlando, where he was the unequivocal focal point of the Magic's offense.

Here in L.A., the sun revolves around Kobe Bryant. Always has, always will. Gasol adapted to that well when he joined the team. So did Nash. Howard never looked comfortable.

None of that comes into play with Kaman. He walked through the door knowing this was how it was going to be. The days of other players trying to complement his skill set were over. His value to the team now was in blending in well.

I asked him how that felt, after having it the other way with the Clippers and he shrugged.

"Yeah," he said. "But I was [the face] of a losing franchise. So how good am I?"

It was just about the most honest thing an NBA player has ever said to me. The kind of thing a guy says when he has learned how to grow after a loss.