In the midst of a season that has seen $100 million worth of talent play worse than the NBA's Moneyball team in the Houston Rockets, most things have come laced a certain equivocality. Los Angeles' commitment to Howard is not one of those "things."
Others (cough, Brooklyn Nets, cough) would like to believe that Hollywood's devotion to its newest behemoth is wavering, that his distaste for its current culture would force him out of purple and gold. And that, in all of its speculative glory, is utter nonsense.
No matter how much Howard complains, no matter how out of place he looks in Mike D'Antoni's offense, the Lakers have no grounds to trade him.
And per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, they have no intention to either:
This has rapidly turned into a lost season for Howard, but it would be foolish to declare his Lakers career a lost cause. For those who've called the Lakers on Howard's availability – the Dallas Mavericks and the Atlanta Hawks – the message has been unmistakable: Howard isn't available, nor will that change before the February deadline.
Bryant won't chase Howard out of here, but multiple sources tell Yahoo! Sports that the only issue that would give Howard pause on re-signing with the Lakers would be D'Antoni. In the end, D'Antoni is a coach who fundamentally doesn't believe in post play, who sees franchise centers as intrusive cloggers of the lane.
In acknowledging that Los Angeles won't trade Howard, however, Wojnarowski broaches a completely different, yet totally related issue: What if the big man leaves?
Howard is a free agent at season's end and the more the Lakers lose, the more real his potential departure becomes. To be more specific, the more the Lakers lose under D'Antoni, the more likely Howard is to leave.
Or is he?
We've sat through the tired argument of Howard's image not being able to withstand another hit. Spurning the Lakers after forcing the Orlando Magic to despise his very existence would be something he couldn't recover from.
And while that may hold true, Los Angeles is equally as pot-committed here.
Should Howard abscond from Tinseltown, his image could be replenished by winning, by having a better season than he's having now. The Lakers, though, won't be able to recover as quickly if he leaves, and so they'll do anything and everything in their power to keep him—at all costs.
If anything, they'll bid adieu to D'Antoni himself or even Pau Gasol should it come to that. Howard, however, as the lifeline to Los Angeles' future, is untouchable. Anyone (save for Kobe Bryant) will be sacrificed at his expense...if it comes to that.
As off-putting at the D'Antoni and Howard pairing has been thus far, hope remains that an internal resolution can be reached. With Gasol coming off the bench, theoretically there should be more space for Dwight to operate. As his back continues to heal and his mobility returns, there should be opportunities for him to dominate in transition. Again, big men can succeed in this system. Just ask Amar'e Stoudemire.
But should it not, the Lakers' loyalties lie with Howard:
As New York Knicks coach, D'Antoni issued a clear stance in organizational discussions on a possible pursuit of Howard: He wasn't a fan. He told Knicks front-office staff stories about how the elders of USA Basketball preferred Tyson Chandler to Howard, and that the Knicks would be wise to adopt that thinking, a source with knowledge of the conversations told Yahoo! Sports.
The best thing to ever happen to Howard's career was Stan Van Gundy coming into his life in Orlando. He pushed him, tested him and brought out the best in Howard. In Los Angeles, Bryant plays the part now. They were never destined to have a close relationship. Bryant can't tolerate the tone that Howard sets, the clowning on the floor, the grabbing of the microphone on team charter flights to do impressions, the locker room revelry.
At present, Bryant has been the most valuable coach Howard has in Los Angeles. D'Antoni is known for his passive compliancy. Howard was at his best, though, under the smoldering approach of Stan Van Gundy. It was he that helped transform Howard from an inconsistent scorer into a 20 points per night threat. It was he demanded more out of Howard than D'Antoni has ever tried to.
And Magic Mike should take note. If he wants to salvage not only the souring relationship between he and Howard, but his future as a head coach, he needs to adjust his attitude (and perhaps his system) to meet the emotional and physical needs of Howard.
Often times, franchises are criticized for dedicating themselves to a player over a coach. But sometimes, the fit just isn't there and that can be rightfully (or at least partly) attributed to coaching deficiencies.
D'Antoni couldn't convince Carmelo Anthony to buy into his offensive ideals with the New York Knicks last season. One year later, Melo is attempting a career-high 6.5 treys per game and shooting a career-best 42 percent from beyond the arc.
Mike Woodson has demanded more from Anthony than any coach before him, D'Antoni included. Under Woodson, Melo has been held responsible for his transgressions and been forced to evolve as a player.
Howard needs that. He needs his own Woodson.
He needs D'Antoni to be an authority figure, not a coach who approaches the game the same way a submissive fourth-grader approaches peers on the playground in hopes they'll be accepted as one of their own.
Sure, D'Antoni's laid-back and trusting approach works for some. Bryant's the type of player you don't want to butt heads with. Just ask Mike Brown. But it's not conducive with the personality of Howard.
D'Antoni needs to explicitly explain what Howard's role is, and insist that he assume it; he needs to show the very backbone that, yes, cost Van Gundy his job, but also earned the respect of Howard. Because right now, Howard doesn't respect D'Antoni. If he did, he wouldn't be verbally assaulting Los Angeles' entire dynamic.
Coaches are tasked with adjusting their approaches to meet the needs of each individual player. Rarely is there a cure-all form of guidance. What works with one doesn't always work with the other. And the D'Antoni and Howard conflict is no exception.
It's also at the heart of the Lakers' free fall. More so than they're 23rd-ranked defense. More so than their 15.4 turnovers per game. And more so than their losing record.
Why, you ask?
Because as long as D'Antoni and Howard are on separate pages of the same book, nothing is going to change. Nothing.
And if nothing changes, who are the Lakers going to side with? The coach who was a controversial hire to begin with and has had trouble gaining the respect of other stars in the past? Or the once-in-a-generation type big man who, amidst one of the worst seasons of his career, is still an All-Star?
If forced to choose, who would the Lakers part ways with first?
I won't even offer an answer, because there's not even a question to consider here.
Howard is the future of the Lakers. Long after Kobe, Pau and Steve Nash have rode off into the California sunset, there will be him, the most dominant big man the game has to offer.
Los Angeles can't afford to part ways with its future, not when it currently has nowhere else to turn.
And certainly not when D'Antoni is the consolation prize.
*All stats in this article are accurate as of January 23, 2013.