Is this the last of Dwight as a Laker?

April, 27, 2013
4/27/13
7:52
PM PT
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
LOS ANGELES -- Sunday could be the last game Dwight Howard plays for the Los Angeles Lakers.

The question is: Should it be?

The Lakers have already made their intentions clear. They want Howard back.

"Dwight is our future," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said back in February to debunk all the trade rumors that were swirling.

"It's hard to get talent in this league, and to have a talent like Dwight Howard, we have no intention of trading Dwight Howard," Kupchak continued. "He belongs to have his name on the wall [as a retired uniform] and a statue in front of Staples [Center] at some point in time."

They certainly won't be erecting a statue based on Howard's 2012-13 alone. In a season that started with Howard coming off of spinal surgery -- later admitting that his back could have feasibly kept him out of the lineup until March -- and included Howard missing six games because of a torn labrum in his right shoulder, Howard never lived up to the "Superman" reputation that preceded his arrival here.

The nine-year veteran made his seventh All-Star team, but his 17.1 points per game were his lowest average since his second season in the league, his 12.4 rebounds were his lowest since his third season, and his 49.2 percent mark from the foul line represented the second straight season he's shot less than 50 percent from the charity stripe. Not to mention the former three-time Defensive Player of the Year winner finished tied for 14th in the voting for the award this season.

With Kobe Bryant going down with a season-ending Achilles tear, Howard's numbers have increased to 20.6 points, 14.0 rebounds and 3.0 blocks on 55.7 percent shooting from the floor in five games as the No. 1 option with Bryant gone. But the Lakers have gone just 2-3, including 0-3 to open up their first round series against the San Antonio Spurs.

All year long, when asked about his future plans after this season, Howard's go-to response was that he was only concentrating on winning a championship in L.A. in 2013.

Barring the Lakers becoming the first team in NBA history to come back from an 0-3 deficit to win their series against the Spurs, and then somehow going on to win three more series without Bryant on the court, Howard's championship goal will go unfulfilled this season.

So, what will he decide to do?

While the Lakers have been forthright with their plan to build around Howard, the 27-year-old has been evasive as to whether he sees his future including L.A.

When asked about what the offseason could bring following Saturday's practice, Howard said, "I haven't thought about it."

Even if Howard wasn't telling the truth, he can't act on any decision he would make for more than two months; he becomes a free agent July 1.

At that point, Howard can sign a five-year, $118 million contract to stay with the Lakers, or a four-year, $87.6 million deal with another team.

While the extra $31 million in guaranteed money might not seem like as big a deal for a player who is on a career track to warrant yet another max contract when his next one is up, Howard learned that he isn't as indestructible as he thought this season, after only missing seven games total in his first seven seasons in Orlando.

According to several sources familiar with Howard's thinking, Howard will likely explore free agency before reaching his final decision. In today's media landscape, that means there will be a circus in July while Howard hears pitches from the likes of the Dallas Mavericks and Cleveland Cavaliers.

Even if it is merely Howard doing his due diligence before making a major life decision, the frenzy it is sure to create will give Howard a taste of the backlash he could face if he ultimately decides to uproot from L.A. just one year removed from the "Dwightmare" that surrounded his exit from Orlando.

As bad as Howard's first season in Los Angeles went -- from a coaching change, to myriad injuries, to the death of the Lakers' legendary owner Dr. Jerry Buss, a media spotlight that criticized him for everything from his free throws to lack of effort to the headband and arm sleeve he wore -- L.A. is still set up to be a place for his career to blossom.

The things that could give him pause, mainly his relationship with Bryant and his belief in Mike D'Antoni, can be worked on, and if Howard indeed signs a five-year deal, odds are he'll outlast both of those guys in L.A. anyway.

While Howard has been tight-lipped when it comes to answers about his future plans all season long, maybe his true intention has been on his Twitter profile all this time.

Howard's avatar shows him in a gold Lakers uniform staring down at a basketball that he holds in both of his big hands. Behind him hang the uniforms of legendary Lakers big men: George Mikan's No. 99, Wilt Chamberlain's No. 13, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's No. 33 and Shaquille O'Neal's No. 34.

His Twitter bio is three words: "After the ring!"

We'll find out sometime in the coming months after the season whether he'll continue to seek that ring with the Lakers, or if he'll have to change that avatar of his.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Kobe Bryant
PTS AST STL MIN
25.2 4.8 1.4 35.4
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Hill 8.6
AssistsK. Bryant 4.8
StealsK. Bryant 1.4
BlocksE. Davis 1.2