All along, it was expected (known, really) that the Lakers would become Howard's team after Bryant retired. The allure of leading the Lakers toward another dynasty was supposed to be too good for Howard to pass up.
Even if he couldn't stomach playing under Bryant, there was light at the end of the tunnel. The Lakers would eventually be his. Only Los Angeles has no idea if he's willing to wait that long.
Bryant has been as indecisive about his impending retirement as Howard himself was about leaving the Orlando Magic. Depending on the day, his career is either nearing its conclusion or he's aspiring to play until he's 40 or older.
"My goal is to win more than five," said Bryant, as quoted by the Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus. "If he does win five, hopefully that pushes our organization upstairs to be even more determined and more driven to make the necessary expenses to make sure we continue the next year and the year after that."
If Bryant intends to be a part of the Lakers next year and the year after that and even still the year after that, Los Angeles could have a problem with Howard.
Their feud (or non-feud) has been well documented. The two admitted they weren't best friends and their personalities couldn't be more different. Bryant can be overwhelming, a fierce competitor to his very core. Howard is perceived as a rhapsodic jokester, frowning only when the conversation shifts to his desire to win, as if questioning his resolve were one of the cardinal sins.
That in itself is a recipe for disaster. Howard was new to the bright lights and flashing cameras of Hollywood. Losing, coupled with the 'round-the-clock media coverage, left him shell-shocked, as it would anyone who is new to playing on a big stage. Factoring in a strained relationship between him and Bryant only complicates matters. Telling him that the Lakers won't be his for at least another few years has the potential to drive a wedge between a union that has barely been given a chance.
And yet, it won't.
Spurning Los Angeles in favor of another team won't be the result of Howard's refusal to play second fiddle to Bryant. He won't be able to be sold on the idea of playing third string to Paul Gasol, but the Lakers don't want him to. They want him to be the face of their future.
That's what will scare Howard off more than anything. Not Bryant, not his alleged contempt toward Mike D'Antoni and not his quest for his first title. If he leaves, it will be because he's afraid of becoming Bryant, meaning as much to the Lakers as he does.
Tinseltown is in a position to do great things. Maybe not next year, but soon. Assuming the Lakers re-sign Howard, they'll have close to $30 million leading into the summer of 2014, when names like LeBron James will prove attainable.
There's nothing to sell Howard on there. The Lakers have won before—Bryant has five rings of his own to prove it—and their plan is to win even more later. They want Howard to be the focal point of that plan, a harrowing concept for someone as both jovial and sheltered as he's been.
Howard is only going to sign in Atlanta if Chris Paul comes with him. Little else would make sense. Any team Paul plays on, incumbent or not, is his team. Dallas has Dirk Nowitzki. Even after he takes a pay cut, the Mavericks will be his as long as he's playing. And the Rockets will have James Harden (Paul too?). He's not about to cede control of the franchise to Superman.
Paul, Nowitzki or Harden are not considered as difficult to appease as Bryant, but they're all superstars. Likely any team Howard deserts the Lakers for will have another star, another ego he will have to coexist next to.
Bryant's presence then won't be the driving force behind his potential departure. The expectations that come with personifying the Lakers name and the standards they're held to will be.
"I'd love to see us pick up next season where we left off this season prior to these injuries," Bryant told Smith. "We were playing some good basketball—things were flowing."
Continuing to build upon their current core is only possible if Howard returns. And the uncertainty behind his return doesn't have have to do with surrendering control of the Lakers to Bryant as much as it has to do with his capacity to successfully survive life without him.