- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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HOUSTON -- Different All-Star city, same mixed messages from Dwight Howard regarding his future.
For a second straight season, Howard's commitment to his team has come under intense scrutiny during All-Star Weekend. And much like in last year's midseason showcase in Orlando, Fla., when he was still with the Magic, Howard shuffled between conflicting statements and left no indication whether he wanted to remain with the Lakers.
Howard confirmed Friday he has received assurances from Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak that he wouldn't be dealt by next week's trade deadline despite his unwillingness to commit to an extension or a new contract after the season.
Asked during Friday's All-Star media session if he'd be shocked if the Lakers traded him in the coming days, Howard said: "Well, they told me they weren't going to trade me. So, yeah, I would be surprised."
Howard spent much of his 30-minute session with reporters trying to deflect questions about his future. But ultimately, he said he wouldn't be pressured by anyone into making a decision about his future before the end of the season.
"The only thing that matters is the present, and right now," Howard said. "There's no need to talk about what's going to happen at the end of the season. No reason to go back and forth about it. I just feel like at the end of the year, I should have my opportunity to make my own decision. I shouldn't be criticized for waiting for the end of the year."
Without some kind of indication from Howard, the Lakers could risk losing the league's best center in free agency this summer without getting key assets in return. Orlando faced the same dilemma this time last season, but ultimately got Howard to waive an early termination contract clause that would have allowed him to enter free agency last summer.
But Howard's relationship with the Magic hit another snag during the season's stretch run and he opted for season-ending back surgery. After the season, Orlando fired coach Stan Van Gundy and general manager Otis Smith, then traded Howard to the Lakers with a year left on his deal.
The Lakers, who have struggled through injuries and style clashes on the court, are now facing the same uncertainty. But just as Howard suggested he didn't want to talk about his future, he then said he didn't believe it was fair for teammates, front-office staff, media or fans to criticize his decision to hold off on any commitment until July.
"It's not [difficult] for me," Howard said. "Everybody else wants me to talk about the future. But for me, the only thing I'm concerned with right now is to have fun at All-Star Weekend, and continue to train so I can come back and have a pretty good second half. I'm not going to deal with it. I had to deal with it all last year. I'm not going to do it again. There's no need to talk about it. I want to have fun."
Very little about playing for the Lakers has been fun, Howard said. Considering he entered the season recovering from back surgery, the early-season coaching change from Mike Brown to Mike D'Antoni, the struggles to adjust to a new playing style, the torn shoulder labrum he's playing through right now and the losses, it has been a challenge.
The numbers reflect that burden. Howard is averaging 16.3 points, the fewest since his third season in the league. He leads the league in rebounding, but the 11.8 boards are his fewest since his rookie season. Howard is also fouling, on average, at the highest rate of his career.
"I didn't expect it to go this sour," Howard said with the Lakers at 25-29 and four games out of the final playoff spot in the West. "There's always room for improvement. We had to battle a lot of things this year. A lot of injuries, guys being new here. We've had to deal with a lot."
Still, Howard said he's convinced the Lakers can go on a run in the second half of the season to get into the playoffs.
"I'm not going to get up here and tell you, 'No, we're not,'" Howard said. "I still have faith in my team. We have to figure out a way to do it, and do it fast."
But Howard stopped short of suggesting that a strong finish from the Lakers would factor into his decision to stay or leave. He laughed when a reporter from Dallas reminded him that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban really wants him. Howard also dodged questions from New York-area reporters who asked if he was still interested in Brooklyn.
There was also a moment when Howard denied that he ever said he was uncertain about his future. Moments later, he reiterated he hasn't reached a decision either way.
"Our job is to come out and play hard every night, and we have to live in the moment," Howard said. "Nobody can control what happens at the end of the year."
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