Kobe Bryant's torn Achilles tendon will reshape the Los Angeles Lakers' future in more ways than one, not the least of which will be the injury's impact on Dwight Howard's impending 2013 free-agent status.
L.A.'s center is in the final year of his deal, meaning he'll be free to test the market—a liberty he'll most certainly exercise—this summer.
A number of factors will be in play when Howard makes his decision on where to suit up next year, but Bryant's injury is now among the most significant.
In theory, the likelihood of Howard agreeing to return to Los Angeles should be tied directly to Bryant's prospective health. After all, one of the key concerns of any free agent is the talent (and the chances of winning) of the team he ends up joining.
But Bryant's future is riddled with uncertainty.
The 17-year veteran underwent surgery on April 13, and the Lakers have pegged his recovery time at anywhere from six to nine months:
Vitti says its a 6-9 month timetable for @kobebryant’s recovery. Asked if that means he’s back for next season, “that’s the plan.”— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) April 13, 2013
Any number of things could affect Bryant's road back, but if all breaks right, there's a chance he'll return in time for the 2013-14 season at something approaching full strength:
Rose, one of the leading experts in his field, also optimistic Kobe can regain something close to peak form (w/ age-related decline)— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) April 13, 2013
It stands to reason that a healthy Bryant would serve as a strong enticement for Howard to stick around in L.A. But here's the thing: It's not all that clear that Howard would want to play with Bryant—healthy or not.
In a season marked by ill-fitting relationships on the court, Howard and Bryant's off-court struggles have cropped up repeatedly.
The two have clashed over everything from team chemistry to touches to alpha-dog roles.
Back in January, Howard spoke to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN about his relationship with Bryant:
(Chemistry is) something we have to do to get better. We have to play like we like each other. Even if we don't want to be friends off the court, whatever that may be, when we step in between the lines or we step in the locker room or the gym, we have to respect each other and what we bring to the table.
Reading between the lines of Howard's comments is pretty easy.
His phrasing obviously alludes to a pair of facts that don't exactly inspire a lot of confidence in his ability to ever get along with Bryant: They're not friends, and they don't like each other.
For what it's worth, Howard thinks his team is a good one, with or without Bryant:
Dwight: "We have a lot of talented guys on this team and I think we can accomplish something great with or without Kobe."— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) April 13, 2013
To be fair, Howard has to say tactful things like that at this stage.
The alternative—which would feature him explicitly saying that Bryant's injury doesn't matter—isn't something Howard would ever publicly say. He's far too consumed with being liked to throw L.A.'s most beloved athlete under the bus when the mics were hot.
Reportedly, though, Howard's feelings about Bryant haven't been quite so chummy behind closed doors.
Based on what we've learned about Howard's selfishness and massive ego since his messy exit from Orlando, there's a good chance he believes the Lakers would be better with him—and not Bryant—as the team's focal point.
So in a strange way, it's possible Bryant's possible absence or diminished role actually improves the chances of Howard remaining a Laker.
Of course, the money doesn't hurt either.
Under the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, teams are able to retain their own free agents by offering a fifth year that other clubs can't match. In the case of Howard, L.A. can offer him a five-year deal worth about $110.8 million. The best any other team could do would be a four-year agreement worth approximately $80 million.
Thus, even if Howard really doesn't want to stick around a Lakers team that still features a healthy Bryant in a prominent role, an extra $30.8 million could help him find a way to stomach it.
Ultimately, Howard has a lot to consider in his decision this summer.
He'll have to decide whether the Lakers (whose projected $78 million payroll next year without him means they'll suffer a huge luxury-tax hit almost no matter what they do) can find a way to get younger and deeper.
That's a lot to think about.
If money's what he's after, Howard will stay in L.A. regardless of Bryant's health. But he's been a hard guy to figure out in the past. He left a great situation with a terrific coach in Orlando, after all.
The only thing we can say for sure about the effect of Bryant's injury on Howard's free-agent decision is that it makes things even more complicated than they already were.
Everything about Howard's tenure in L.A. has been complicated, though.
It's appropriate that the next phase of his career would begin in a similar fashion.