There remains one message Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak hopes Dwight Howard understands.
“He’s our future,” Kupchak told Lakers.com’s Mike Trudell.
It remains to be seen if Howard feels the same way. He plans on exploring free agency beginning on July 1, talking and visiting with a number of teams that could include the Lakers, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors. Howard could sign with the Lakers for five years worth $118 million, as opposed to four years worth $87.6 million with any other teams. But it’s conceivable Howard could still offset that cost difference with another max contract and if he plays in Texas since there’s no state income tax.
Plenty of things plagued Howard in his first season with the Lakers, ranging from injuries (back, right shoulder), reduced offensive role, increased media scrutiny and frustration at times with both Kobe Bryant and coach Mike D’Antoni. But there’s a specific reason the Lakers are pinning all their hopes on Howard returning.
“Dwight is in the category of the great of the great,” Kupchak said. “He’s over his back injury and there’s no reason he can’t play seven, eight more years at that position. There’s no doubt in my mind if he does, he’s in the Hall of Fame. Those players are just hard to come by.”
That didn’t fully translate last season.
Howard averaged 17 points and a league-leading 12.4 rebounds, but those marked his lowest numbers since the 2006-07 season with the Orlando Magic. Howard admitted his injuries affected his timing, conditioning and fatigue level. He didn’t execute on pick-and-rolls with Steve Nash with the same frequency and effectiveness the Lakers’ coaching staff had hoped. Howard posted 17 points and 10.4 rebounds in the Lakers’ first-round sweep to San Antonio. But those four games featured him struggling for post positioning and expressing frustration from the Spurs’ physical play, contributing to a Game 4 ejection after picking up two technicals.
Still, Kupchak believes the general public set Howard up to an unfair standard considering his injuries.
“I don’t think he got as much credit for the season as he should have gotten,” Kupchak said. “Big men are different. They can’t bring the ball up the court. They really rely on their teammates to make them look good.”
That dynamic improved throughout the season. He showed steady improvement in February (15.1 points on 60.8 percent shooting and and 12.3 rebounds), March (17.9 points on 54.7 percent shooting and 15.2 rebounds) and April (20.9 points on 61.1 percent shooting and 10.5 rebounds).
The Lakers have plenty of uncertainty beyond Howard’s injury. Kobe Bryant is still rehabbing from a torn left Achilles’ tendon. The Lakers boast a veteran-laden roster. They’re also entering their first offseason without the late owner Jerry Buss, who died at age 80 in February due to an undisclosed form of cancer. But Kupchak argued Howard could mark the beginning of a new beginning for the franchise.
“We’re closer to the end of that era than we are to the beginning of it,” Kupchak said. “We know with Jerry West, Wilt [Chamberlain], Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and Magic [Johnson] — everything at some point and time comes to an end. We’re trying to plan for that.”
“We’re looking a year or two down the road when we have the transition into another era, which is why the Dwight [decision] is very, very important.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org