That's why during the Lakers' last two games sans The Black Mamba, all eyes will be on Dwight Howard to see how he fares as the team's focal point, which he will eventually be, assuming he re-signs with L.A. this summer when he becomes a free agent.
He passed his first major test with flying colors on Sunday night at Staples Center by pouring in 26 points and grabbing 17 rebounds to go along with three blocks and two steals while leading the Lakers past the always-dangerous San Antonio Spurs, 91-86, in a game they had to have. Despite a poor 8-for-17 mark from the free throw line, he looked every bit like a player who could anchor a franchise.
One game is a small sample size, but if L.A. can get past the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night or see the Utah Jazz lose to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday, they'll make Bryant's sacrifice worthwhile by competing in the Western Conference playoffs. That would mean an opportunity for Howard to showcase his ability to lead from the front, something that was in question throughout the regular season this year and for much of his career when he was with the Orlando Magic.
Two-time NBA champion Pau Gasol will have something to say about who the offense flows through, but the Lakers will, again assuming he stays, eventually hand the reigns over to Howard when Bryant calls it a career.
While that may make some fans uneasy given his emotional instability, early-season inconsistency and well-documented struggles from the free throw line, he has an opportunity to remind everyone rooting for the Lakers why they were all overcome with unbridled enthusiasm just several short months ago when Howard first donned a No. 12 Lakers jersey.
He's a difference-maker, and if he can affect the game defensively the way he has of late, the Lakers will be in good hands, with or without Bryant.
For one, Howard is nearing full health for the first time in over a year, and his lack of explosiveness was a direct result of having undergone surgery on his back at the end of the 2011-2012 season. With everything to play for and the Lakers' pride and season hanging in the balance, expect to see a motivated, focused Howard.
The proof was in his postgame interview following the win over the Spurs. The normally-jovial big man had the intensified look fans have become accustomed to seeing from Bryant over the years. This time, it was D12 who didn't mince words when he spoke with reporters after the game (via Lakers.com):
"We hate the fact that Kobe won't be able to play, but we're all professional basketball players who understand the game," he said. "We understand how to play this game. Some of us have been playing for a long time. We just have to trust each other and trust the system and just play."
There was a clear element of freedom to the game on Sunday, and it was obvious that the Lakers, particularly Howard, sensed the urgency they needed to play with. There's more work to be done before they can label the season as anything other than a disaster, but Howard could put a lot of questions to bed with a strong final game and playoffs.
Michael C. Jones covers the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA as a Southern California-based sports journalist and editor. He contributes to SB Nation in addition to Yahoo! Sports and is the Managing Editor of Sports Out West.
Catch up with him on Twitter @MikeJonesTweets
- Sports & Recreation
- Los Angeles Lakers
- Dwight Howard
- Kobe Bryant