If Dwight Howard decides to re-sign with the Los Angeles Lakers, he'll wear purple and gold further into the future than Kobe Bryant. By extension, that means he's going to become the next face of the franchise.
Or, at least, be forced into trying to do so.
Throughout the praiseworthy history of this stellar organization, a franchise face has almost always been in place. George Mikan first took up the mantle, and he was followed by a litany of legends: Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe above all.
It's a natural progression, and every time the mantle is released by one retiring star, it's almost immediately picked up by the next. Kobe has a few years left in the tank—if he decides to play that long—but Dwight has more. If he returns to Tinseltown, that mantle is his to pick up.
But does he want to?
That, above all else, is the relevant question in Howard's upcoming free-agency saga. It's not about where he can win because, as the big man said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times' T.J. Simers, he can win anywhere. Any team with Howard in the paint is immediately a competitive one.
The problem with the Lakers' pitch is that they're focusing on what they can give to Howard, not what Howard can give to them. ESPN's Ramona Shelbourne provides us with the following passage:
Or, as Kupchak put it as he addressed the media at the end of the 2012-13 season, "We didn't spend a lot of time talking about what the city or the organization doesn't have to offer … If there's something we're lacking, I don't know what it is."
See, that's the wrong pitch.
Howard isn't looking for a situation where everything is already in place. He wants to be the guy who fills a void and pushes a team to the next level, but he doesn't want that hole to be the one left by another legend. Filling a pair of shoes like Kobe's isn't ideal, but filling a hole in a lineup most certainly is.
Physically, D12 is a monster.
The criticism he received throughout the 2012-13 campaign was valid, but it was also a bit unfair. At any point during his first run-through with the Lakers, Howard could've pulled the plug on his season. His back was injured throughout the year, to the point where he had to wear a specially made compression shirt, but he never quit.
How easy would it have been for him to succumb to the pain? Kobe is wrong in that embedded clip, because Dwight played for the Lakers whether he was healthy or not.
Refusing to call it quits requires a certain level of mental toughness, but that's the area in which Dwight struggles the most.
Going back to that Simers interview, Howard admitted that his biggest problem lies above that injured back and those massive shoulders. He revealed that he was visiting a psychiatrist throughout his time in L.A., and that spells trouble.
If Howard thought that the media pressure and the attentiveness of fans was tough, he's in for an even more harsh reality when the Mamba retires and passes over the intangible face-of-the-franchiseness into the hands of his much larger teammate.
In a lot of ways, the dilemma for D12 revolves around the oft-discussed idea of the size of fish in ponds. No matter where Howard ends up during the summer of 2013, he's going to be a big fish. A whale even.
It all comes down to the size of the pond.
With the Lakers, Howard wouldn't just be playing in a small pool of water; he'd be swimming through an ocean as he attempted to navigate the tides (fans), waves (media) and other predators (the 29 other NBA teams) in the water.
If he joined another team like the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks or Atlanta Hawks, the body of water's size dips rather dramatically. With those franchises, he'd truly be in a pond. And there, Howard knows quite well that a big fish or whale can reign supreme. In fact, the fanbases of said ponds would love nothing more than to have a massive aquatic creature to root for.
Things change in an ocean, though. In the wise words of Qui-Gon Jinn, "There's always a bigger fish."
That bigger fish might not appear immediately, but it will always be lurking in the back of Howard's head should he choose to remain in the City of Angels. It might be the historical legacy of the team, the threat of a younger star coming along or the constant negative attention that surrounds him whenever things take a turn for the worse.
Or it could be the specter of Kobe Bryant just daring Howard to live up to the legend he created after the turn of the century.
A while back, the Boston Globe's Gary Washburn dropped this bomb of a tweet:
Well, that's not what it's about. The Lakers can't afford to talk about the future with Howard until they've firmly decided what happens in the present.
Above all else, Howard needs to feel valued. He seems to want his contributions to be both recognized and appreciated, but it becomes harder to fulfill that criteria when he's expected to fill the shoes of a legend.
Kobe's shoes will never be filled. A better player might come around one day, but he'll need to step into a different pair of sneakers, because No. 24 means too much to this organization.
That second set of footwear doesn't exist yet. There has to be a rather significant temporal gap between two careers for it to develop, and the careers of Kobe and Dwight overlap.
Dwight knows this, and I'd be willing to bet that it occasionally keeps him up at night as he tries to decide what he wants to do during the hottest months of the year.
If the big man does indeed move east when he signs with a new team, it won't just be due to the factors we hear about in the inevitable press conference. Sure, the system, surrounding pieces, coach and chances of winning will come into play, but so too will the threat of Kobe's legacy.
There aren't many players who can fill those size-14 clodhoppers, and Howard isn't one of them. That's by no means an insult. Just a reality.
If the Lakers continue to play up their legacy as a recruiting pitch for the big man, they'll be looking for a different center to join them for the 2013-14 season.
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