Staying in Hollywood allows him to contend next to one of the NBA's all-time greats until he hangs up his laces and passes the torch to Superman. Leaving will be interpreted as him escaping the clutches of an overly demanding, tyrannical Kobe.
Opting to sign elsewhere or deciding to stay put won't have everything to do with the Black Mamba. There will be plenty of other factors that drive him to his eventual decision.
Overwhelmed by Kobe, the expectations of Los Angeles and living up the reputable standards Laker bigs have set before him, among other things, will all aid in constructing the gateway to his potential departure. Feeling marginalized within Mike D'Antoni's offensive system will lay some of the groundwork for him to leave as well.
Money, market size and the allure of immortalizing himself with one of the most successful franchises in all of sports is going to intrigue him. No matter how much of a public relations nightmare Howard's inaugural campaign was, these are still the Lakers. Stars don't abandon them in search of championships; they flee from previous locales to win titles for them.
Oh, and some of them would even be enticed by playing next to an aging and ruptured-Achilles rehabbing Kobe. Five titles are enough for stars to look past his birthday and latest bout with mortality, Howard included. Championship pedigree, in any and all forms, is a sought-after virtue.
The lens through which Howard views Los Angeles' current state will be impacted by Kobe's decision to play. Signing on for another five years knowing that the team will be yours in one or two is far different than returning under the pretense that he plans to play out the life of your contract as well.
To complicate matters even further, Howard has to use a best-guess system to determine what he believes Kobe will do. Depending on the day, his mood and what color socks he's wearing, the Mamba's stance on retirement may change.
Most recently, he admitted that he could see himself playing another three or four years, a span that lasts nearly as long as Howard's next contract will. Taking into account how opt outs are typically structured (third or fourth year), that could mean Howard is stuck with Kobe until he has the ability to become a free agent once again.
While attempting to walk a mile in Howard's shoes, I can see his dilemma.
Signing with the Lakers will be viewed as a commitment to winning, to greatness and fearlessness. Accusations that suggest he's too cowardly or flippant to carry one of the NBA's premier franchises lose credibility if he stays. Embracing the future blueprint the Lakers have red-carpeted for him is the exact opposite of what his greatest detractors expect him to do.
And yet, it's difficult to make that kind of statement when you're looking at another three or four years until the team you're supposed to save is yours, because so long as Kobe is sporting purple and gold, the Lakers will never be Dwight's. Never.
To an extent, that kind of safety net is invaluable. Howard can experience the thrill of winning on one of the biggest and brightest stages without bearing the cross that is supposed to come with it.
But at some point it can become a hindrance.
Were Kobe to come right out and say he planned to play another four years, no exceptions, Howard's return would be an admittance that he's prepared to spend his prime as a second fiddle.
Los Angeles could eventually part ways with Kobe, but pay cuts could be taken for the Mamba to remain the face of the Lakers for almost another half-decade. If that's what Howard is prepared to do—play in someone else's shadow—why shouldn't it be James Harden with the Houston Rockets? Or why shouldn't he journey on to the Atlanta Hawks where he would be the unquestioned man?
Pushing 35, Kobe isn't the ideal star to play behind long term. For one or two years, absolutely. Said amount of time would allow Howard to navigate the ins and outs of Tinseltown without free agency looming. Then when he's ready, Kobe would cede control of the franchise via retirement.
Picture-perfect ending—that's what that is.
Believing that Kobe plans to play as long as he's recently alluded distorts that fairy-tale ending. It manipulates the way Howard interprets the future, and if he's who the Lakers think he is—a demonstrative behemoth ready to take the reins of their organization—that won't mean anything good.
Like I said before, however, what comes next is bigger than Kobe.
Joining or creating a superteam of any kind forces stars to make sacrifices. Whether Howard signs with Houston, Atlanta or Los Angeles, he'll have to make concessions—big ones. The kind he's never made before. All in the name of winning.
More so than Kobe, Dwight's next move needs to be about himself and where he envisions winning more championships. When looking at the Lakers' track record (Kobe's included) and all the future cap flexibility they have, Kobe's mindset should be just a blip on Howard's radar.
Never mind that they're not best friends. They don't need to be. The Lakers are prepared to offer him a contract that extends well beyond Kobe. Their vision is bigger than him, than Pau Gasol, than Steve Nash and dwarfs the towering Howard himself.
For better or worse, what awaits Howard in Los Angeles is far greater than anything he's ever been exposed to or even imagined. Retreating from the Lakers would be an admittance that he's scared of all the Lakers can give him and all he would one day be responsible for more than it would indicate he's running from another three or four years of Kobe.
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