How much better would the L.A. Lakers be if Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol were all healthy out of the gate in 2012? What if the Lakers had chosen Phil Jackson as head coach instead of Mike D'Antoni?
Both of the above are very popular questions and accurately reflect the nature of the up-and-down season the Lakers have endured. However, the most intriguing question that we still cannot answer is (drum roll, please):
Will this season leave a good enough impression on Dwight Howard for the big fella to re-sign in Los Angeles?
Dwight's return or departure will have the most significant and immediate impact on the shaping of the future. And by the future, I mean the imminently approaching post-Kobe Bryant era. What they do this season will have a very strong influence on whether or not the former Orlando Magic superstar will remain in L.A.
If you're a reasonable sports fan, you can plainly see that the odds are stacked heavily against the Lakers to make a finals push in 2013. The Miami Heat are ripping off wins with ease, and the best few teams of the Western Conference have a very clear strangle hold on the standings.
Kobe Bryant is having a phenomenal season—enough so that I am personally looking into that mythical German blood treatment for my own use in later years. But seriously, the man is 34 and putting up unprecedented numbers in his 17th NBA season.
And yet, as much as the Lakers front office and fanbase have milked one of the greatest players to ever step on the parquet, the focus now has to be on Kobe's broad-shouldered teammate. This comes into play especially now that Bryant is sidelined indefinitely with a potentially serious ankle injury. His absence will surely impact the Lakers' playoff prospects and potentially influence the taste that this season leaves in Dwight's mouth.
Whether Kobe's injury is season-threatening or not, it's finally time to admit the closing of an era and allow for a bit of future talk, especially with how quickly that future is approaching. It's time for the Lakers franchise to put on its nicest suit and make the most attractive offer to Dwight that it can afford.
Until this point, however, all Dwight Howard has seen of L.A. is disarray behind closed doors, an infinitely curious and pestering media and fans who have little patience for growth periods. If you had asked me at the start of February whether or not I thought Dwight would re-sign, I would have suggested otherwise.
But if not Dwight, what are the Lakers going to do once Bryant decides to hang 'em up?
When the front office signed Howard on for this season, they surely envisioned the center as an integral asset to the team's future success. After all, he was one of the most dominant at his position just one year previous in Orlando and only figured to improve when surrounded by more talent.
Just in the nick of time, the Lakers look like they have figured out a recipe for wins and sit comfortably three games above the .500 mark after March 12 action. Maybe 34-31 isn't what everyone expected from a supposed super team at its conception, but at least the Purple and Gold seem to have discovered a directional map toward the postseason.
With a few feel-good wins to turn around this season, Dwight's future outlook is nearly as murky as it was during the summer of his signing. For L.A., the remaining 17 games—and maybe a postseason series—offer one final chance to woo D12 to stay.
What we do not know is what it will take to convince Howard that his best career decision will be to stay with L.A., or if that is even possible. In fairness, with LeBron James in Miami and Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City for the Thunder, it is hard to convince anyone that the right move is to stay on an opposing team.
If the Lakers make the playoffs, they'll likely square off against the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma in the opening round. Both matchups would be eye-opening for the Lakers and serve as a reminder of just how far they are behind the league's most legitimate contenders.
Will season's end scare Dwight off? Or will it motivate him to sign and attract a new slew of talented teammates? Only time will tell.