Yo Dwight, you got now.
It’s a case of can’t live with him, but can he live without him? For Los Angeles Lakers big man Dwight Howard, who has often felt like Kobe Bryant’s picked-on little brother in his first season in Lakerland, this baffling year now falls in the palms of his massive hands after Bryant’s devastating Achilles injury Friday night.
Make no mistake as the Lakers quickly move on with no other choice to Sunday’s critical game against the San Antonio Spurs. This is not suddenly the overly cerebral and emotional Pau Gasol’s team nor is it the injured Steve Nash’s job to keep Lakers’ chins ups. The bionic Metta World Peace? Hardly.
We’re about to find out just how much the 27-year-old Howard, L.A.’s hopeful future rock of the franchise, has grown up in the past year, through the scars and lessons of an implausibly wild ride: His never-ending debacle in Orlando, the trade, the back surgery, the firing of Mike Brown, the head-bumping with Mike D’Antoni, the shoulder injury, the death of Jerry Buss, Bryant’s relentless, often backhanded, tutelage, and, of course, all the losing by a team already declared one of the biggest busts in NBA history.
Just two games stand between the Lakers making the playoffs after an arduous climb or descending into a long, uncertain offseason. Immediately the cycle will begin of will-he-stay or will-he-go questions that will hound Howard and the Lakers all the way to the July 1 start of free agency when Howard can hand-pick a team with enough cap space to sign him.
All indications have suggested that Howard seems headed for a long-term stay in L.A., tabbed as the successor to Kobe’s throne once he calls it a career, perhaps as early as after next season as Bryant himself has suggested now on multiple occasions.
How Bryant’s Achilles injury, which could keep him out as little as six months or as long as 12, will affect the Lakers’ immediate playoff hopes will be known in a matter of days. Less certain is Bryant’s availability for next season and ultimately his longevity now 17 years in, and especially how it might alter Howard’s feelings about re-signing under such circumstance.
The latter is impossible to even speculate. Nothing with Howard has ever been what it seems.
And now Bryant’s absence thrusts Howard into the spotlight like never before, even as he smiled through all those years leading that rag-tag bunch as a sole superstar stuck in Orlando. For the remainder of this season, however long it lasts, and, without a doubt, for at least the start of next season if he chooses to stay in Lakers purple and gold, all eyes will be trained on the 6-foot-11, 265-pound man-child.
D’Antoni, whose offense has failed to integrate Gasol and Howard on the low block, will have no choice now but to slow the game up and put the team’s fate in Howard‘s ability to go to work down low.
With Bryant out, Howard is the Lakers’ best player on the floor. If L.A. is going to take the final steps and achieve the satisfaction of having at least scrapped into the playoffs, they’ll need Howard to lift his team and produce like he is indeed the best player on the floor.
The stage is truly his.