The Los Angeles Lakers must bring Dwight Howard back next season, but they will not be able to call themselves the favorites in his impending free agency race unless they make the playoffs this year. Howard is currently out with a shoulder injury and has subtly voiced his frustrations with head coach Mike D'Antoni's fast-paced offensive system.
Los Angeles has won five of six, but the Lakers are currently 22-26 and three-and-a-half games outside of the final playoff spot in the highly competitive Western Conference. There are still 34 games left to play, but each and every one counts for the Lakers.
Of those games, 18 are against squads that would make the playoffs if the postseason started today. Needless to say, the Lakers are in for an uphill battle—one that can result in Howard staying with the team if it is won.
Look at it this way. When Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak pulled the trigger on the blockbuster trade that made Howard a Laker last August, the team's fans went into a frenzy. Not only did Kupchak bring them a fine playmaking point guard in Steve Nash, but he also landed a three-time Defensive Player of the Year while trading away the moody and oft-injured Andrew Bynum.
By conventional standards, the Lakers were the best team on paper and the favorites to win the 2013 NBA Finals.
But that's all a dream now. Los Angeles has fought injuries, a coaching change and frustration from all parties in a season that could become lost in the blink of an eye. Making the playoffs is the only way that the impending free agent, Howard, will be convinced to sign a new contract to remain with the team.
It doesn't help that Howard has already supposedly made up his mind about next season. Speaking to T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times in December, he just said "I know," when asked if he knew where he'd play next year. Thus, Los Angeles could already be at a disadvantage when it comes time to negotiate with him, especially with teams like the Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks entering a prime position to pursue the star center.
That all being said, the Lakers need to bite the bullet and just make the playoffs this season. They don't even have to win a series—just get that far and compete. That alone could be enough to prove to Howard that Los Angeles is where he belongs, as the team fought tooth and nail to give him some support and unite under a common goal.
Moreover, Kupchak and team owner Dr. Jerry Buss could then make the necessary adjustments prior to the start of free agency whether that involves a coaching change or a simple trade. Re-signing Howard needs to be the team's top priority and if that means making some seemingly unconventional moves, so be it.
But none of that can happen unless the Lakers make the playoffs. Howard has already shown that he is unhappy with the team's current situation under D'Antoni, and the only way to prove him wrong is for the team to come together and make the playoffs. Some could argue that this hot streak is enough, but those come and go.
What the team absolutely must do is refuse to give up in any game. The Lakers must treat each contest as though it is Game 7 of the NBA Finals and show a competitive nature from start to finish.
That alone could be enough to convince Howard to stay with the Lakers. He came to the team to win, and seeing that his teammates want to do the same could provide him with an extra bounce in his step.
However, without that unity and no playoff berth to show for it, Howard has very little reason to stay in Los Angeles. Under those circumstances, it'd be better for him to sign with another team and enjoy a fresh start, writing off 2012-13 as a fluke.
In that case, it would be one bad day to be a Lakers fan.