With no future guarantees coming from the impending free agent, analysts wondered how long the team could afford to hold on to him. An aging core (Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol) cast an ominous cloud over the team's ability to compete in the coming seasons.
Surely, they could not risk losing Howard over the summer and getting nothing in return.
But Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak refused to gamble on the trade market, instead staking the club's future on a center who has looked, at times, to be a poor fit with both his teammates and his coach.
However, Howard (perhaps inadvertently) hinted that Kupchak's patience will be rewarded soon.
According to Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register, Howard said he and his Laker teammates "have years to play with each other" when asked about his ability to find his role in Mike D'Antoni's offense.
If that comment didn't knock your socks off the same way that it left the basketball world scrambling to cover its ugly feet, consider this—it's Howard's first remotely definitive public statement on his future plans.
When previously prodded on free agency, Howard had always handled the inquiries like a seasoned public relations pro. He gave his current team just enough praise to pacify the fanbase, but never closed the door to potential summertime suitors.
The consensus from analysts was that Howard would re-sign with the Lakers. Outside of his obvious reasons for staying put (the Lakers can offer him one more year and $30 million more than any other team), he would have a hard time finding another city that could grant him the kind of marketing and entertainment opportunities that Tinseltown has.
But that consensus wavered with each Laker loss. He butted heads with perhaps his two most influential teammates (Nash and Bryant) through the media. He looked confused and under-used in D'Antoni's system, with the coach's handling of him drawing criticism from former Lakers coach Phil Jackson (via Jaime Uribarri of the New York Daily News).
Even through the darkest points in L.A.'s season, though, Kupchak held out hope. He did his best to stifle any trade talks through repeated unequivocal denials of Howard being shopped. He stated his desire for Howard to one day have his jersey retired and a statue in his honor in front of Staples Center (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com).
In fact, Kupchak nearly praised Howard to the point of apparent posturing to drive up his price tag. But then again, Howard's such a unique talent that it was nearly impossible to write off anything Kupchak said.
Howard's less than a year removed from back surgery and still ranks in the league's top five in both rebounding (first, 11.8 per game) and shot-blocking (2.31 per game). He's the fourth option on the Lakers offense in terms of field-goal attempts per game (10.3) and still ranks second on the team in scoring (16.4).
He hasn't always looked the part this season, but he's undeniably a franchise player. And with Bryant and Nash approaching the tail ends of their careers (and Gasol not too far behind), Howard's on the brink of becoming the cornerstone piece of one of the NBA's most storied franchises.
As long as he sticks around this summer, that is.
Kupchak certainly thinks he will, and after hearing these comments, frankly so do I.