LOS ANGELES — Is this how Dwight Howard’s L.A. story ends?
Does it finish with two technical fouls and an automatic ejection with 9:51 left in the third quarter of a second consecutive home blowout? Is this how the future of the franchise, as general manager Mitch Kupchak called him a few months ago, exits — walking off through the tunnel to a golf clap before much of the sold-out crowd had even made it back to their seats?
And then, like ships passing in the night, the Lakers’ royalty of past and present emerged from the tunnel for the first time during these two playoff games at Staples Center. Dressed in a black suit and moving slowly on crutches, Kobe Bryant chose that very moment to make his appearance, to wave to the crowd, as if to reinforce whose hands still cradle this proud franchise. He took a seat behind the bench, serenaded by the familiar chant of “M-V-P” as action on the court played on.
Howard said he somehow missed Kobe coming in as he was heading out.
“I didn’t see anybody,” Howard said in hushed tones. “I didn’t even know he went out there.”
Bravo, Lakers. No one does drama like you.
Meanwhile, the always sympathetic 7-footer, Pau Gasol, remained as last star standing to finally bury this tragic season. If this was to be Gasol’s last stand as a Laker, at least the faithful sent him on his way with a heartfelt standing ovation with 3:08 left in the game.
“I guess there’s a sense this is a possibility,” Gasol, with the topic of his departure sensitive, said after producing 16 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
Gasol and the ragtag Lakers that mopped up this season were no match for the San Antonio Spurs, who are headed for an extended layoff after finishing off the depleted, and now officially defeated, Lakers with a first-round sweep. Sunday’s Game 4 was never in doubt with Tony Parker, Tim Duncan & Co., going wire-to-wire for the expected 103-82 thumping.
And so here we go dashing into your offseason story, L.A. — Lakers held hostage: Day 1.
Three seasons removed from their last title and anything more than a first-round series win, the Lakers’ future is now trapped inside Howard’s head. And after the loss, he was at his contradictory best while talking about this lost season and the season to come, wherever that may come for the free-agent-to-be.
Howard, almost comically, used the word “nightmare” to describe this season in its entirety, an unintentional nod to the “Dwightmare” moniker that media types dubbed Howard’s final, maddening, flip-flopping season with his old team the Orlando Magic. And, on a beach somewhere, those bums he used to call teammates are laughing so hard they’re spitting up their Mai-Tais.
“It was like a nightmare. It’s like a bad dream and we couldn’t wake up out of it. That’s what it felt like,” said Howard, who settled for seven points, eight rebounds and five turnovers in 20-and-a-half minutes before frustratingly getting a second technical. “It seemed like nothing could go right from the start [of the season], injuries and all that stuff.”
Then, Howard continued with a most interesting “but,” that perked up all listening ears …
“But,” Howard continued, “we get an opportunity to get some rest, guys who are injured, coming off injuries a chance to rehab and think about what we can all do to better ourselves.”
The questioner told Howard that he sounded optimistic about a return to the Lakers. Or is it reading too much into that?
“You’re reading too much into that,” Howard said softly.
Next, Howard was asked if the team can turn this disappointing season into something positive and return the proud Lakers franchise to title contention next season.
“We’re all going to take some time away from the game and focus on us, and focus on getting better,” Howard answered, again sounding as though he planned to be part of the “us” that’s focused on “getting better.”
Really, be thankful that only the Lakers’ fate, and not that of the free world, hinges on Howard’s ability to make a decision or say what he means. We’d all be doomed.
“It was a rocky year. A lot of things happened that I didn’t have any control over,” Howard said. “I think I handled some situations good and I think I handled some bad, but it’s a growing process. We’re going to keep growing, we’re going to keep learning. That’s why we have an offseason, to get an opportunity to reflect on good and bad things that happened during the season and try to make it better for the next year.”
For whatever reason, Howard can’t or won’t commit to taking the Lakers’ max contract offer of five years and $118 million that will be on the table July 1. He won’t allow Kupchak to begin taking bids for sculptors — you remember Kupchak’s statue talk — or to begin a master plan of building the program around the 6-foot-11 Howard without also having a contingency plan. Only Howard knows what he intends to do. Or maybe he simply doesn’t.
“I’m going to step away from everything for a couple weeks and clear my head before I talk about anything as far as next season,” Howard said. “I think I deserve that.”
Sure, Howard can “explore” free agency, but his value is already set. He will be a max player somewhere. He already knows the handful of teams — Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, to name three — that will have the cap space available to fit him into a four-year, $87.6 million contract, the max that teams not named the Lakers can offer under the collective bargaining agreement.
Howard’s only consistent thought about his future throughout this season is to say that he hasn’t thought about it.
Reasons to leave L.A., to pass on the challenge of being the next great center alongside George Mikan and Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal, are worthy of consideration. Does he want to continue to play with the domineering Kobe? Can he thrive under coach Mike D’Antoni? Does the lack of a young superstar already on the roster worry him? Does he want the responsibility of being the cornerstone of a franchise that demands championships? Can he stomach the constant scrutiny of spoiled fans and the media and of the ultimate vocal critic in Magic Johnson?
Howard wasn’t done with his postgame contradictions. Here he was now talking about his relationship with Kobe, how it was “pretty good” before he came to town and how nothing’s really changed despite perceptions. He said people “twisted a lot of things.” The “fake fights and arguments that we supposedly had” being chief among them.
And then came this surprising admission that seemed to genuinely come straight from the heart: “We’ve maintained a pretty good relationship,” he said of Kobe, “and I want to continue to be here for him throughout the process that he has to go through recovering from his Achilles. … We’re not best friends, but I want to be there for him. Having an injury is a tough thing to deal with. I just want to be here for him as a brother.”
It would certainly seem strange for younger brother to then pack up and go.
But who knows? This is the contradiction of Dwight.