L.A. Lakers fans aren't the only ones who've been coping with Dwight Howard's defection. The man at the center of the organization's efforts to keep him had to stew about it too. General manager Mitch Kupchak wasn't thrilled, according to the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan:
It wasn't a surprise. I had a feeling that Houston was a frontrunner, and whenever a player is an unrestricted free agent, anything can happen, Kupchak said. Clearly, we wanted to keep him here in Los Angeles, and I felt we did everything we could do within reason to show we did want to keep him here.
Until the end, I kept up hope. I think we were as persistent as we could be within reason. I wasn't shocked but I was disappointed.
That's consistent with what executive VP Jim Buss maintained earlier this month. The Lakers were prepared for this. They saw it coming, even if they hoped to somehow cheat fate with talk of legacies and the implied advantage of a less Kobe-centric future.
Whatever the future holds, the present is definitely Kobe-centric. In addition to confirming L.A. won't be "throwing in the towel" on account of Bryant's recovery from a torn Achilles, Kupchak also sounded guardedly optimistic about his superstar's return, again via Bresnahan:
Obviously, we're all hopeful and we all know Kobe. When you guess on Kobe, he always tries to prove you wrong. The reality is he's doing what he should be doing. He's making progress probably weekly.
Does that mean five months is possible or it's really going to be eight or nine or 10? We just don't know. When he gets back in September, we'll take another look at him, but he hasn't been on a basketball court. It's really premature to try to predict other than try to be optimistic that he'll be ready for opening night or the 15th of November or the 1st of December or the 15th of December.
Kupchak's take was far more sobering than Buss' claim that he'd "bet a lot of money" on Bryant returning in advance of the season opener. Whatever the organization's internal beliefs and expectations, it probably isn't wise to put any public pressure on Bryant.
If anyone can stand up to that pressure, Bryant obviously has the capital to do so. It wouldn't, however, be fair to create any perception that the franchise is "counting on him" to make it back by a particular deadline. Ever the diplomat, Kupchak's keenly aware of the need to set an appropriate tone.
He also believes the Lakers have added key pieces, and the general sentiment seems to be that guys like Nick Young and Jordan Farmar will fit nicely with the Mike D'Antoni regime.
All the same, this is Kobe's team more than ever—with or without him on the floor just yet.