That didn't stop Kobe Bryant from making a firm statement about his take on Howard's impending future in Los Angeles, telling reporters during his exit interview on Tuesday that Howard was "very important" to helping the Lakers bounce back from this season's underwhelming performances, injury-riddled experience and first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.
Although Howard was wildly inconsistent and the lasting memory of his 2012-13 season will be his ejection against the Spurs, there's a huge market for 27-year-old centers who lead the league in rebounding.
As such, Bryant's politically correct answer toward Howard's place on the team was a wise move, whether or not Howard returns to the team for the 2013-14 season.
Here's part of what Bryant had to say about his All-Star caliber center on Tuesday (h/t Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times):
I hope he does [return]...I think Los Angeles is the perfect spot for him to assert himself, kind of put his foot down and have his career really take off and be what it should be. There's no greater place for centers to play than here in Los Angeles. I'll talk to him and bring him out to the house, chill with him a little bit, watch another cartoon movie or something. We'll have a good time.
It's never bad to have options, and there isn't a better option at center on the free agent market than D12.
Bryant might be troubled about his first season with Howard, but even he can't deny that Howard's potential to improve and lead this team in the near future is more important than getting in a jab or being disappointed at the way things turned out.
Expectations were high when the Lakers managed to engineer a four-team trade that included Howard coming to town, especially considering the team included Andrew Bynum in the deal and Steve Nash was an offseason acquisition as well.
Things didn't quite pan out on an individual or team effort with respect to Howard this year.
Although he averaged 17.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game, the same pizazz about his game just wasn't there this year. There's always something or someone to blame it on, and the culprits were there for the Lakers this season—two coaches, being a third option and injury concerns to the entire starting lineup are just a few of those excuses.
But for a player expected to command at least $100 million in the open market, more was expected. Howard couldn't help will the Lakers back into position to make a deep run after Bryant went down with an injury and faded quickly in a do-or-die game in the postseason.
Still, there are plenty of positives to take from Howard's first season. Bryant knows this, and to publicly affirm him instead of pointing out the negative during the interview is a good first step to re-signing the big man this summer.
If you believe the big man during his exit interview (highlights of which can be found at NBA.com), he wasn't anywhere close to being 100 percent at the start of the regular season, a trend that continued as play wore on, and he dealt with various injuries that limited him from playing in all 82 games.
In fact, Howard believes he made a personal concession to help the team after he was traded (h/t Dave McMenamin):
That would explain some of the sluggish defense and lack of intensity on that end of the floor, and it would also help explain why Mike D'Antoni never really felt Howard was a No. 1 option in the post. He showed flashes of being that guy but never fully developed into him before time ran out.
Luckily, he'll have a chance to get completely healthy and expand his game this summer.
As for a return, it's not going to be an easy task. The Lakers are facing salary cap conundrums that could force them to part ways with one of the three between Bryant, Pau Gasol and Howard, and since Kobe will not be amnestied, that burden could fall to Gasol (h/t Sam Amick of USA Today) or by choosing not to re-sign Howard.
If you listened to general manager Mitch Kupchak on Tuesday, the decision is far from final (via Mike Trudell):
That in mind, the free agent market won't give Los Angeles a lot of chances to correct what some feel is a mistake in Howard. Bynum is dealing with injury concerns, and there's little chance he would be receptive to a return to LA. What other free agent center can dominate the game like Howard can?
Kobe Bryant and I both know the answer to that question: There isn't another guy in the NBA with Howard's particular skill set.
It was important that Kobe pledged his support for Howard's return on Tuesday. He and the Lakers' brass know this offseason could be crucial in a short- and long-term capacity, since Bryant will be coming off the brutal Achilles injury and Nash is on his last leg.
Even Gasol is an aging player.
The Lakers have choices to make when it comes to the coaching staff, the personnel and even the identity of this team as a whole. To ensure that drama isn't part of that equation, Kobe Bryant took on his normal role of team ambassador yet again.
Howard might be a free agent, but there's nothing to report on any animosity between him and the team right now.
After the season the Lakers have had, that in itself is good news.