Nothing about Dwight Howard's plans have changed.
Correct, the same Lakers who have more than $100 million in payroll obligations yet sit under .500 and are 3.5 games outside the Western Conference playoff picture still offer Howard the chance to win on and off the court.
While it's easy to look at Los Angeles' record and Howard's seemingly deteriorating relationship with Kobe Bryant and Mike D'Antoni as reasons to leave, the big man must look at the big picture. And then face reality.
There (probably) isn't a title to be won in Los Angeles this season. Injuries have obliterated what little depth the team had to begin with, and the rotation remains inconsistent at best. The state of Howard's back and shoulder isn't helping things either. To dub this convocation a failure and Howard's future in Tinseltown nonexistent, though, isn't just premature, it's inaccurate.
Howard still needs the Lakers just as much as they need him. His 16.2 points and 11.7 rebounds per game are his lowest averages since the 2006-07 campaign, and his 19.1 PER is the second lowest of his career, but he still needs the Lakers.
Why? Because he doesn't have anywhere else to turn if he wants to restore the very image that now continues to elude him.
You know the image I'm talking about. The one that allowed Howard to assume a comical demeanor without being considered an artificial competitor. The one that wouldn't have prompted even the Los Angeles media to question his will to win. The one that afforded him the opportunity to be anything but antagonistic.
Howard can still be that guy, the one everyone came to love and believe in. He just has to avoid a repeat of his departure with the Orlando Magic. And the only way to do that is to remain in Hollywood and commit to reviving a now-ambiguous franchise.
The Lakers were supposed to represent everything Howard wanted and needed to further his brand, and they still can. But leaving after just one season only furthers his growing reputation as a truant, as someone who refuses to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty.
Where's the honor in that, especially when he has nowhere better to go?
Brooklyn is also killing the potential for Howard to return home and play for the Atlanta Hawks.
Per Chris Broussard of ESPN.com, the Nets are making a strong push for star forward Josh Smith, the lone asset Atlanta has that would entice Howard:
The two teams are engaged in discussions, but one source said while "there has been lots of talk, nothing is close yet."
The Nets are willing to give up Humphries and second-year shooting guard MarShon Brooks for Smith. But it almost certainly will take more than a Humphries-Brooks combination to pry Smith away from Atlanta, and one source said the Hawks want Brooklyn's first-round pick.
The Hawks were a long shot to land Howard with Smith, something Broussard goes on to admit as well. Without him, they wouldn't stand a chance. That they're now "60 percent" certain they'll deal him implies they're ready to concede what would have been a fruitless pursuit.
Even with Smith, Atlanta doesn't provide Howard with anything he's thought to be looking for. Not only have the Hawks spent the last decade attempting to stave off mediocrity, but Atlanta is not a market that is conducive with Howard's big city dreams.
And neither are the Houston Rockets, another supposed threat to Howard's future in Los Angeles.
Houston isn't what you would call a prominent market. However, with nearly $20 million in cap space to burn through this summer and a budding young superstar in James Harden, it remains a favorite to pry Howard out of California.
Discrediting the Rockets' current blueprint borders on useless. Harden has given them hope for the future and a chance to snag a playoff berth this season. But he's not enough to sell Howard on Houston. Partly because few players would be, but mostly because he has no existing relationship with the center. If he did, he would have already begun to recruit him (via Sam Amick of USA Today):
But while free-agents-to-be Dwight Howard of the Lakers, Andrew Bynum of the 76ers and Josh Smith of the Atlanta Hawks could be coming his way, Harden said he doesn't have a specific player in mind on top of his personal priority list.
"I don't because if I did have a guy (like that), I'd be texting him every single day," Harden said.
Specifically, Harden said he has no relationship with Howard.
Ties to incumbent players are an important part of the free-agency recruiting process. The Miami Heat are championship-wielding proof of just this. That Harden hasn't established any rapport with Howard seriously impedes Houston's pursuit of the behemoth.
From there, where else would Howard have to go? The Dallas Mavericks? To play alongside an aging Dirk Nowitzki and a roster as ambivalent as Howard's current health?
Let's get real.
No avenue available to Howard outside of Los Angeles is worth exploring. No other team gives him the chance to play alongside three other All-Stars. No other team is willing to spend as much to win as the Lakers. Few teams have the cap space Los Angeles does moving beyond next season.
And no team stands to help Howard salvage what's left of his once-untarnished image more than the Lakers.
As lethargic a villain as he is now considered, imagine how revered he would be if re-signed in Tinseltown and helped reverse the current narrative. Star-laden conglomerates don't often need saving, but the Lakers do, and Howard can be their savior.
Committing to Los Angeles isn't just a financial assurance. It's an indication that Howard is devoted to finishing the vision he helped create, a sign that he is prepared to weather a storm in hopes of achieving something greater.
A chance to show he's not intimidated by conflict and values winning more than convenience.
An opportunity to prove he's still the player, still the man-child we all seem to have forgotten about.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.
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