There once marked a time when Kobe Bryant doubted he wanted to stay with the Lakers.
It happened once when he explored the free agent market in 2004 shortly after the lakers traded Shaquille O’Neal, fired coach Phil Jackson and saw a flurry of role players flee. Those sentiments emerged again in 2007 when Bryant demanded a trade and openly questioned the organization’s financial commitment into building a championship roster. Both times, the late Lakers owner Jerry Buss assuaged Bryant’s concerns. So as Dwight Howard begins the free agency process where he wonders if the Lakers are the fit for him, Bryant understands the conflicting feelings he might have.
“It has to be his decision,” Bryant said in a sitdown interview with Lakers.com’s Mike Trudell. “The last thing you want to do is convince a person that they want to be here. If you have to convince them when challenges or adversity comes up next season, it’s very easy to say, ‘Well they had to convince me to be here anyway, I really didn’t want to be here, I’d rather be (somewhere else) but they sold me on it.’ You want it to be his decision. When it’s something that’s rooted inside of him, it’s something he champions. I just want to be there to assist his decision.”
Howard plans to test the free agency market beginning at 9:00 p.m. tonight, which will include meeting with the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks, Golden State Warriors and the Lakers. Possibly more. Howard could earn a five-year deal worth $118 million with the Lakers, as opposed to a four-year deal worth $87.6 million somewhere else. But if Howard were to play in Houston or Dallas, he wouldn’t have to pay state income taxes for the 41 regular-season home games.
But a source familiar with Howard’s thinking downplayed such variables. Assuming he stays healthy, Howard could make up the lost year by extending on a max-deal in the middle of his upcoming contract. The source said Howard remains solely worried on which team will give him the best chance to win an NBA championship and has a system that will give him a heavy role in the offense.
Howard expressed plenty of frustrations in his first season with the Lakers. He averaged 17.1 points and a league-leading 12.4 rebounds. But those numbers reflected Howard’s lowest numbers since the 2006-07 season and at least partly corresponded to playing through a surgically repaired back and a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Howard didn’t like how Mike D’Antoni’s offense featured him more in pick-and-rolls than on post-ups, and that he wasn’t consistently featured in the plays. Howard also encountered hiccups adapting to Bryant’s demanding leadership style. It didn’t help the team lost in a first-round sweep to the San Antonio Spurs.
Still, Bryant believes the Lakers will rise above their current issues.
“I hear the critics (of) the roster, everything is up in the air,” Bryant said. “It may seem that way now but the dust will settle. We’ll have a team out there on the floor that’s going to be a contender.”
And lots of that will depend if Howard returns.
“His talent level, his defensive prowess, we saw what he could do at the end of the year when we all started clicking,” Bryant said, alluding to the Lakers’ 28-12 record to close out the season. “I think that makes him extremely, extremely valuable.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org