Kobe Bryant's not coming back soon, and when he does, he may not be the same player as before, so the Lakers are placing their fate and franchise in the hands of Dwight Howard and praying he doesn't treat all that trust like a free throw.
If they win tonight or if Utah loses, the Lakers are in the playoffs, maybe even grabbing the seventh seed. In the short-term, that would almost qualify as a face-saver, given the train-wreck of a season they've had. In the grand scheme? Big whoop. Really, it means little at this point. Kobe's out after Achilles surgery and busy coaching from his bedside. Steve Nash is far from 100 percent physically and close to 40 years old. This isn't the assembled team of future Hall of Famers we were promised, and anyway, that team flopped all season. The Lakers were built to win championships, remember, not squeeze into the playoffs on the final day of the season. There's no magic switch they can flip and change their identity overnight. They're staring at a likely first-round exit and a long off-season to wonder what the heck just happened.
This summer they'll lock up Howard with a nine-figure contract. He's an unrestricted free agent but isn't going anywhere. The Lakers have already said they'll pay him, more than anyone else can, and he's settling in for the long haul. Next season his back should be fully healthy and his head a lot less cluttered. He can be the player he was in Orlando, the one who protected the rim and attacked the glass and drew double-teams and was generally considered the most dominant big man in basketball. And he's only 27. Still a young man.
That said, it wouldn't hurt if Howard gave the Lakers a sneak preview on Wednesday against Houston and, if they reach the playoffs, again in the first round. He needs to leave the Lakers feeling good about the future. With the season on the line, he'll have the chance to be a presence, prove his worth, carry the Lakers without Kobe around and also show leadership, something he didn't always do in Orlando.
"It's time for me to be the player I know I can be," he said.
He went for 26 points and 17 rebounds against the Spurs a few days ago, and he really didn't have a choice. With all eyes on him, Howard had to come up big in the first game without Kobe. He needed to prove much to the fans, his teammates, the Lakers and especially to himself. Eventually he'll get the keys to the franchise from Kobe, and a Laker succession that began with Jerry and Kareem and Magic and Shaq will move to Howard. Does he know how to handle that and everything that comes with it?
"I have to step up and be more for this team," Howard said, before adding that he's "fine" with the demands of dragging a flawed team through the next two weeks and beyond.
Because of crummy luck, the Lakers never really had their real team intact all season. We sometimes forget that. Howard battled back issues right up until the All-Star break. Pau Gasol went down with a bum foot. Metta World Peace had knee surgery. Nash pulled up lame. And then, after playing tremendous basketball and pushing his team into playoff contention, Kobe was done for the year.
History might brand them as a big letdown, maybe top-five disappointments in sports history, but that wouldn't tell the whole story. How many teams could deal with so many assorted injuries and survive? How many teams had the burden of expectations, perhaps unrealistic, given the age and fragility of the key players?
In some respects, the Lakers you see right now, even without Kobe, might win a series -- in the East. Gasol has averaged a double-double since returning and finally seems comfortable under Mike D'Antoni. He and Howard work well together in the post, thanks to Gasol's passing skills. World Peace showed a warrior's mentality and returned from knee surgery weeks before his target date. The Lakers still don't play defense like a contender should, and maybe never will, but against the Spurs they showed what they can do when inspired and focused and yes, desperate.
They no longer have the luxury of standing around and watching Kobe go to work. That's the so-called downside of having a teammate who can score anytime and anywhere. The urge to defer is strong among the role players like Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison, while Howard often whined about being left out of the mix. Now, there's more freedom, less restriction. That doesn't make the Lakers better; only a fool would think they're more dangerous without Kobe. But they play differently. They don't have a choice. The scouting report on the Lakers now needs updating.
And maybe the book on Howard, too?
Well, only he can rewrite that. From a numbers standpoint Howard has had a very good season, with 17 points, 12 rebounds, almost 2 ½ blocks a night. He just lacked intangibles, like rising to the occasion in big moments, making a better percentage of free throws and inspiring his teammates. You could make the case that Howard has never been that type of personality or player, and it's unfair to ask him to be something he's not.
But if this season hasn't triggered a change in Howard, or at least a willingness to change, nothing will. His mortality was thrown in doubt by back surgery. The Lakers struggled. Kobe challenged him more than once. The Lakers struggled some more. The injuries to teammates piled up and the demands on Howard increased. And now, Kobe's gone, leaving it up to Howard to take a larger role in extending the Laker season, or else.
"The Lakers brought me here for a reason," he said.
Eventually, this will be his life as a Laker, anyway. As much as Kobe talks about returning to All-Star form next season -- and you can doubt him at your own risk -- there's no guarantee of that, not for a well-worn 34-year-old. Howard needs to embrace the notion of Kobe losing a step, a worst-case scenario that will only quicken the transition from Kobe to Howard.
If nothing else, Howard grew on Kobe, who can be tough on teammates. At first skeptical, Kobe began to gush about Howard, and was thrilled when Howard visited him twice in the hospital after surgery. Kobe told Howard to take care of unfinished business, and you saw an inspired Howard on the floor against the Spurs in the very next game.
"It's not just me," Howard said. "It's all of us. With him out we all have to do our part to make this happen. We believe in each other and we have to go out there and win. We're going to give it everything we've got."
True enough. But it starts with Howard, who now has a to-do list from Kobe: Make the playoffs, rise to the occasion in the first round, restore some pride within the Lakers after a long and difficult year. Then be prepared to do it all over again next season. And beyond.
It's his turn, his time, his team now.