Just two ol' pals, chatting about the future. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
For weeks, with his Los Angeles Lakers continuing to underperform and his prized offseason acquisition struggling both on the court and, reportedly, off it, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has held firm on one point — that the purple-and-gold wouldn't part ways with Dwight Howard before the trade deadline. On Wednesday — with the Feb. 21 3 p.m. ET deadline just one day away, rumors swirling around the league and the calls for drastic changes getting louder in Lakerland — Kupchak reiterated his resolve, even going so far as to say something that, right now, seems kind of ridiculous.
"Dwight is our future," Kupchak told "The Herd with Colin Cowherd" on ESPN Radio on Wednesday. "Kobe [Bryant] has one more year on his deal [this year, plus one]. That's all I can bank on or this organization can bank on. I have no idea if he wants to continue to play beyond next year. As of now, we're looking at a two-year window, [and that] plays to the urgency of the situation and how we build the team. ... This team's window to win is this year and next year." [...]
"We've been very consistent," Kupchak said. "We're not trading Dwight Howard. ... He will not be traded and there's nothing that anybody can do today to call me today and ask me, 'Would you do this?' and get a positive result." [...]
"It's hard to get talent in this league and to have a talent like Dwight Howard, we have no intention of trading Dwight Howard," Kupchak said. "He belongs to have his name on the wall [as a retired uniform] and a statue in front of Staples [Center] at some point and time."
We're sure the jersey retirement and statue talk didn't go over so well with legendary Laker big men like Shaquille O'Neal, whose No. 34 is set to ascend into the Staples Center's rafters on April 2, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who received his long-awaited statue back in November. Kareem won five rings and three MVPs in 14 years with the Lakers; Shaq won three titles and an MVP in eight seasons in L.A. You'd figure they might think Dwight needs to do something more than put up his worst numbers in seven years for a 25-29 team before Kupchak and company starts making plans for to celebrate his storied Laker career.
While the jersey-retirement-and-statue stuff is obviously all a bit much, the rest of it is, of course, completely reasonable. For all the sturm und drang over the relationship between Howard and Bryant (which Kupchak described as "a work in progress [...] I would say the same thing about Kobe and Steve Nash and Steve Nash and Dwight Howard"), the Lakers' persistent inability to establish an identity, and the team's continued sputtering to a disappointing 25-29 mark that has them on the outside of the Western Conference playoff race and in serious danger of staying there ... I mean, we're still talking about Dwight Howard.
It's easy to forget because he hasn't looked it of late, but we're still talking about a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, a five-time All-NBA First Team selection and a proven game-changer on both ends of the floor. Yes, this is very clearly his worst season since he was 20, but even in a terrible year in which he's been visibly hobbled and scarcely resembled the player he was with the Orlando Magic, he's second in both scoring and shot-blocking among NBA centers, ninth in the league in percentage of available rebounds grabbed, and just outside the top-10 in block percentage. A shell-of-himself Howard who has had his "assets" eliminated is still someone who can get you 17 and 12 per 36 minutes, make nearly 60 percent of his shots and, based on the Player Efficiency Rating metric, produce better on a per-minute basis than excellent centers like Marc Gasol, Al Horford and Joakim Noah (though you'd certainly rather Gasol and Noah this year due to their defensive prowess and passing ability).
Howard's season is so monumentally disappointing because he was the second-best player in the league two years ago, but he's still very good. To trade him, the Lakers would need to get an array of pieces that would give them a better chance of contending for a title right now, to maximize the waning years of Kobe and Steve Nash; it's doubtful such a package is out there. (The remaining money on Howard's $19.5 million contract for this season would make things a bit sticky, too.) And if Kupchak's right that the the lower back injury Howard suffered last April takes at least 12 months to fully come back from, there remains the possibility that he could return to dominance next season.
The Lakers have — right now, in their grasp — a 27-year-old perennial All-Star who, when healthy, is the clear best center in the game; while the results haven't been very good thus far, they brought him to L.A. to be that guy for them, to be the face of their franchise and marquee superstar after Kobe retires. How heavily have Kupchak and company invested in Howard? According to ESPN.com's Chad Ford, there's talk that "if Howard told Laker officials this summer that the only way he'd stay in LA is if Kobe leaves, the Lakers could end up choosing Howard over Kobe." Now, that could be overstating things, but it's also pretty much entirely in keeping with the way the Lakers have approached Howard since bringing him in; they've been saying he's the future.
They're not going to give up on that because the Atlanta Hawks make rumblings about a "serious push" or because there's some perceived theoretical threat of Howard walking in free agency this summer. As a rival general manager told Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski, "They're too arrogant to move him now, even if Dwight asked for it [...] They're the Lakers, and they'll dare you to walk away in July. And if I was them, I would, too." Especially because, y'know, they can offer Dwight a five-year max contract worth nearly $118 million, while other teams can offer, at best, four years and roughly $88 million. It's difficult to envision him walking away from that, no matter how volatile or frosty the relationship between he and Bryant might be.
Players don't often leave $30 million on the table, even if they might find a more comfortable environment elsewhere, and the Lakers don't panic, even if it looks like they should. That's the way the story goes, and to hear Kupchak tell it, the script won't change this Thursday.
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