If Los Angeles Lakers fans were encouraged by Dwight Howard's recent comments about having "years to play" with his L.A. teammates (first reported by Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register), then they have to be thrilled with the comments coming from Howard's close friend and former AAU running mate, Josh Smith.
The Atlanta Hawks star was in town for the two teams' March 3 showdown at Staples Center and reiterated the most common sentiment shared by analysts all along—Howard's not going anywhere this summer.
“I can’t pick his brain and be in his head but to me, I don’t see him going anywhere,” Smith said (according to Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News). “It would be a shock to me.”
The Lakers star, and three-time Defensive Player of the Year, will become an unrestricted free agent at season's end. Smith said that Howard's loyalty, which had come under great scrutiny following his unceremonious departure from the Orlando Magic less than 12 months ago, is the driving force behind his belief that the free agent will re-sign over the summer.
"Dwight is a loyal athlete and loyal person. He’s not a quitter and doesn’t run from situations. That’s why I believe with this franchise and the way he’s talked so well about it, I can’t see him going anywhere," Smith added.
Of course, there's more than just history and a sense of gratitude working in the Lakers' favor. After all, they can offer the big man one more year and over $30 million more than any of Howard's other suitors.
Which is a big plus considering his first year with the Purple and Gold has been nothing short of a disaster. Injuries to several of the Lakers' key cogs (including Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol) and an in-season coaching change have kept the team from developing an identity, forcing them into a season's worth of on-the-fly adjustments that had the preseason favorites looking destined for the lottery.
But there have been a few promising signs as of late that the Lakers (30-30, 13-5 in their past 18 games) can salvage what's left of the season. And Smith credits some of this mini-resurgence to Howard working himself back into game shape and better understanding his role with the franchise.
"He’s trying to find his way on this team and trying to get back healthy. That’s the biggest thing he’s doing and worrying about. He’s getting his legs back under him and he’s starting to block more shots. It’s going to take some time," Smith said.
Should Smith's thinking on Howard's future prove correct, there are some unwritten implications for the futures of others here as well.
For one, Smith himself will hit the free-agent market this summer. Hawks general manager Danny Ferry entertained trade offers for his versatile forward up to the last minute of the 2013 NBA trade deadline, contemplating whether or not the risks of Smith leaving in free agency outweighed the benefits of their chance to keep him with the franchise for years to come.
Ferry ultimately opted to hold on to the free agent, leading many to speculate (or rather, continue to speculate) that the GM would make a run at both Smith and Howard this summer. Howard admitted that the childhood friends have talked about one day joining forces in the NBA (via Medina), with either player presumably being the biggest draw for signing with the Hawks.
Assuming Howard stays with the Lakers, though, it's unclear what that means for Smith's future in Atlanta.
Both Howard and fellow free-agent-to-be (Los Angeles Clippers point guard) Chris Paul are the cream of the 2013 free-agent crop, the prized catches for any franchise fishing the free-agent market this summer. If Howard and Paul re-sign with their current clubs, it may push Ferry to maintain his cap space (i.e., let Smith walk) and focus on the star-studded free-agent class of 2014 (via HoopsWorld.com).
Howard's potential re-signing may also affect the future of current teammate Pau Gasol.
Gasol was one of the names frequently accompanying Smith's at the top of the trade rumor mill, given his struggles this season (career-low 13.4 points per game and 45.3 field-goal percentage) and heavy financial commitment next season ($19.3 million).
But the Lakers' ability to move Gasol was said to be hamstrung without any guarantee from Howard. Coach Mike D'Antoni never solved the puzzle of a Gasol-Howard frontcourt, a combo that could be broken up before next season tips off. Gasol won't be going anywhere until Howard's signed on the dotted line, but he could very well be on his way out of L.A. as soon as that ink dries.
With declarations like this one from Smith, Howard's future appears to be inching closer to becoming a certainty.
A certainty that brings with it more questions for the Lakers, Hawks, Gasol and Smith that will not be solved before the summer.