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Kobe's Injury Means Dwight Howard Gets to Prove He Can Lead the LA Lakers

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Kobe's Injury Means Dwight Howard Gets to Prove He Can Lead the LA Lakers
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

OK, Los Angeles Laker fans…don’t panic.

Yet.

As everybody knows by now, Kobe Bryant went down with a sprained ankle in the final seconds of the 96-92 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, after he landed awkwardly on Dahntay Jones’ foot.

I’m in the dirty-play camp. Apparently, so is the NBA, which issued a statement late Thursday that a foul should have been called on Jones. 

It’s water under the bridge now. As Kobe says, gotta put on his big boy pants.

However, the Lakers do retain their slim playoff hopes. The Utah Jazz obliged by not beating the Oklahoma City Thunder, which leaves the Lakers with a tenuous hold on the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

Next up: Friday against the Indiana Pacers.

My bet is Mamba won’t play. But I’ve bet against Kobe returning early from injury before and been wrong, so who knows. Mamba is in legacy mode now, and a huge part of his legacy is his unbelievably high tolerance for and ability to play through pain. 

If we’re going to look at this glass as half full, consider the Lakers have a relatively light schedule for the next seven days, which includes three full days off in one stretch. That will give Kobe more time to heal if he needs it.

This is what I do know: With or without a hobbled Kobe, Dwight Howard has to step up.

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

He wants to be The Man? Here’s his chance.

Being The Man in Los Angeles is not the same as being The Man in Orlando. The Lakers are one of the marquee franchises in the NBA.

There are expectations. 

These upcoming games, especially if Kobe can’t play, provide Howard a chance to show he can step up and carry the team. In a twist of fate no one could have foreseen, Kobe's injury gives the Lakers front office the opportunity to see how Howard can perform under the most scrutiny and without the crutch of Kobe to bail out the team. 

The pressure will be on Howard (not Steve Nash) to elevate his game and ensure that the Lakers do not lose ground in the playoff race. I believe that Howard’s performance over the next couple of weeks will dictate the offer the Lakers make in the offseason. 

Here is why I say that. Last year, Kobe had his own version of a flu game during the playoffs against Denver. He ended up needing four IVs and still played.

Andrew Bynum, last year’s version of "future face of the franchise," did not step up. I talked about it here. I believe that his showing during that stretch and also when Kobe had to sit with a shin injury directly factored into the Lakers trading him to Philadelphia

Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss will be watching closely.

Howard, I'm speaking to you: If you want to assume the eventual mantle of leader of the Lakers, now is the time to prove it.

Refuse to lose. Recall all the lessons Kobe has taught you this season—focus, effort, discipline.

Now apply them.

But it’s not just the Lakers front office who will be watching—it’s all of Lakers Nation. There’s a reason for Lakers Nation's full-throated support of Kobe. He’s demonstrated his commitment to the Lakers and doesn’t wilt under the bright lights.

We’ll all know in about a week if Howard has the same fortitude. 

This is what Howard has to navigate. I hope Team Dwight understands this. Because the Lakers hold all the negotiating cards. They will not be held hostage by unreasonable contract demands or wishy-washy "maybe I’ll stay, maybe I’ll go elsewhere" shenanigans. 

But if Howard steps up and leads the team in Kobe’s absence, he will make a case for dyeing his Superman cape purple and gold for a long time to come. 

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