Every time Dwight Howard steps on the floor for a practice it's another step in the right direction for the Los Angeles Lakers. It seems he's already ahead of schedule (although a schedule for his return was never really released) to return to the team.
Just add that to the long list of positives that have been surrounding the Howard-Andrew Bynum trade they made back in August.
That, combined with the fact that it's come out that Andrew Bynum's knee injury, which has been described as a bone bruise, might be more serious than originally thought.
So it basically took a little over a month for us to remember that Bynum has had a career riddled by injuries. It's surprising that it took that long.
This is the kind of thing that always seems to go right for the Lakers. They make a steal of a trade for an excellent player and then, to put the icing on the cake, the guy they traded ends up going downhill. It's like when the Lakers still snaked Lamar Odom and Jordan Farmar out of the trade for Shaq.
If there's any reason to believe that Howard is going to be playing for the Lakers past this season, it's the basic belief that these things always seem to work out in L.A's favor. The worst thing that ever seems to happen to this team is Kobe Bryant having to play with Smush Parker in between dynastic enterprises.
It's going to be a while before we know for a fact that Howard will be returning; he's got no reason to sign an extension during the season. If he were to sign an extension before becoming a free agent then it would mean signing a shorter deal with smaller raises between each season, leaving over $20 million on the table.
With that, it's obvious that it should be of no concern when Howard inevitably declines to sign an extension. However, I do think you'll hear at some point during the season that the Lakers "expect" to re-sign him in the offseason, a report that Howard will do everything but confirm.
Until that happens, there are a few bits of evidence we have to look at that might not scream "He's coming back," but they at least go to the extent of saying in a raised voice, "He's got no reason to leave."
First there's the fact that if he were to leave, Howard would be accepting a contract shorter and far cheaper than he would get when re-signing the Lakers. Rather than getting a 7.5 percent raise each season with the Lakers, he would be going elsewhere and getting a 4.5 percent raise each season. The same as signing an extension during the season would lead to him leaving more than $20 million on the table.
Monetarily it makes no sense for Howard to leave, but there are some people who can look past the money and go do what makes them happy.
However, it's more than the sense of financial superiority that is going to keep Howard in Los Angeles.
He's already cemented himself in the history of Lakers big men in the only way a Lakers big man can. He's gotten help from a former center in L.A. history and been criticized by another. It seems like a rite of passage for Lakers big men to get the cold shoulder or some ridiculous criticism from a former Lakers big man.
In this case, Howard has gotten advice from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the potential for some schooling in the future and has been decried by Shaq as at least the third-best center in the league after comments in the past year that both Brook Lopez and Andrew Bynum are better than he is.
Even better, after Shaq's comments, Kobe Bryant came out and defended Howard. When has Kobe ever come out and defended his teammates against the criticism of others?
Whether that's just another chance for Kobe to dig at Shaq, which is an ongoing feud that I hope never ends, isn't important. The thing here is that Kobe is a different Kobe than he was just four or five years ago.
This Lakers lineup is set for Howard to not only succeed, but to eventually take over the reins as the leader of the Lakers. Kobe is winding down, he's accepting help wherever he can get it so he can win as many titles as he can before he retires. It's the best situation for Howard to learn what it means to be a leader and what it takes to live in a media firestorm.
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