Once the clock struck 12:01 a.m. ET on Monday, the entire future of the Los Angeles Lakers franchise began hanging in the balance.
It was at that time that star center and free-agent-du-jour Dwight Howard was meeting with the Houston Rockets in Los Angeles. Flocked with an army that included James Harden and Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon at his side, general manager Daryl Morey pitched Howard on coming to Houston. According to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, the Rockets even had ex-center Yao Ming pitch to Howard via Skype.
The meeting was an excess in flattery—and a successful one at that. Wojnarowski reported that the Rockets are currently the "frontrunners" for Howard—a status that puts the Lakers in a standing, well, somewhere other than front-runner status.
There are, however, some glimmers of hope. Sam Amick of USA Today reported earlier Monday that Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak made it a point to connect with Howard as free agency approached. Kupchak and Howard spoke first on Saturday, where the GM gave the star center a mini-pitch on what he means to the Lakers and why he should stay.
The second meeting, just before Howard met with the Rockets, was merely a good-luck talk, but the message remains the same: Howard is Los Angeles' top priority, and the team is willing to do just about anything to keep him in town.
What's unclear is how the Lakers will move beyond the flattery in their talks. Howard just languished through arguably the worst year of his professional career, with internal turmoil and an untenable coaching situation marring his only season in Los Angeles.
One thing the going in the Lakers' favor—or at least going better than expected—is Kobe Bryant's recovery from surgery on his Achilles tendon. The star guard ruptured the Achilles in April, effectively ending the Lakers' playoff run before the regular season even concluded. They were subsequently eliminated by the San Antonio Spurs in four games during the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
While an Achilles injury is one of the worst-possible ailments for a basketball player—Deadspin's Kyle Wagner had an excellent piece on the history of the injury when Bryant went down, which essentially puts his odds at a full recovery at slim to none—Vino seems to be defying the odds again. Bryant posted a picture of himself on his Instagram earlier this week shooting in the Lakers' practice facility, along with the hashtag "#showUagain."
We're going to assume he's just talking to all of us.
That mere picture says a ton of words—or at least it will when the Lakers meet with Howard. Bryant has been targeting a return date of November or December for next season, and he told ESPN Los Angeles 710 AM that he won't hesitate to return once cleared for action:
Kobe on return: "I'm shooting for November, December latest. That's my goal in my head...Once I'm ready to go, its gonna be on"— ESPNLA 710 Radio (@ESPNLA710) June 19, 2013
The 34-year-old guard also spoke with Lakers.com's Mike Trudell this week, with all indications being that Bryant is feeling better than most would at this juncture.
"It's feeling really strong. I can walk without a limp," Bryant said. "I can go up the stairs and just stand on my toe, which shows a lot of strength in the tendon."
Howard and Bryant certainly had their fair share of differences last season. The laissez-faire attitude of Howard clashed with the steadfast and unrelenting leadership style of Bryant, leading to tension, mockery and nearly a fight.
Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News reported in January that the two almost came to blows after a New Year's Day loss to the 76ers—about the low point in the Lakers' season. Howard later mocked Bryant in the NBA All-Star Game locker room, according to the New York Post. Apropos of nothing, the NBA All-Star Game took place in Houston this year.
Despite all of those problems, Bryant's recovery may be the biggest thing the Lakers push during their meeting with the big man on Tuesday. Much of the tension between the two men came as Los Angeles was pushing to break the .500 barrier. By the end of the season, the two seemed to have worked out their differences, jelling on the court to lead the Lakers to a playoff berth.
Bryant has also been public in his desire to bring Howard back to the fold. He sent out a subliminal tweet that seemed directed at Howard when free agency began in the wee hours of Monday morning:
Speaking with Mike Trudell of Lakers.com, Bryant spoke of how he wants Howard to want to be a Laker, not to "sell" him on it:
It has to be his decision. The last thing you want to do is convince a person that they want to be here. If you have to convince them when challenges or adversity comes up next season, it's very easy to say, 'Well they had to convince me to be here anyway, I really didn't want to be here, I'd rather be (somewhere else) but they sold me on it.' You want it to be his decision. When it's something that's rooted inside of him, it's something he champions. I just want to be there to assist his decision.
That being said, assurances that Kobe Bryant will be Kobe Bryant next season may be one of the few things that convince Howard that Los Angeles is his prime destination. When looking at the Lakers' current roster constitution, there really aren't many other selling points.
Bryant, even in a defensively diminished state like he was last season, is still one of the game's most feared competitors. He averaged 27.3 points, six assists and 5.6 rebounds per game during his age-34 season—the first player in NBA history to ever pull off that feat.
Over his career, Bryant has continually defied injuries and the oncoming push of Father Time. If he's again doing the same with this Achilles injury, it could do a lot to convince Howard to stay with the Lakers.
Of course, that's mostly because the rest of the Lakers core hasn't been as able to do those things. Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, the other two assumed building blocks for the Lakers next season, missed a combined 65 games in 2012-13. They also had below-their-standards statistical seasons and are to the point in their respective careers where it's fair to wonder whether they're worthwhile championship teammates.
Where will Dwight Howard sign this offseason?
While Gasol's contract ends after next season and Bryant will likely take a pay cut when his ends the same summer, the juxtaposition with Houston is strong. The Rockets have a burgeoning young core that includes Harden, Chandler Parsons and a bevy of excellent trade pieces should Howard sign.
There is no shortage of assets in Morey's cupboard, and he's shown a ruthlessness in finding the best way to win basketball games every step of the way.
There is even the possibility that Houston could work out a sign-and-trade for Hawks forward Josh Smith, should Howard push for that to happen. The options for the Rockets and the positives going in their direction—at least from a purely objective standpoint—seem to outweigh the Lakers.
Los Angeles has three things going in its favor, each of which could sway Howard just enough to keep him around: the pressure for D12 to not jump ship for the second straight season, $30 million in extra guarantees on his contract and the possibility of bringing in a LeBron James-type superstar next summer in free agency.
Kobe Bryant's injury status has long been an X-factor. If Mamba can convince Howard that he'll be ready to go for a championship run next year and going forward, that might prove to be just enough to take H-Town and the rest of D12's suitors down.
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