Dwight Howard might be willing to leave Lakers in free agency this summer in pursuit of a championship

After dropping a 113-103 contest on their home floor to the Orlando Magic on Sunday night, the Los Angeles Lakers now sit at 8-9, in third place in a Pacific Division they've topped for five straight seasons, and in the uncomfortable position of not knowing quite how to fix what ails them. Injured star point guard Steve Nash is reportedly still 10 to 14 days away from returning to the fold, the relative age and size of Pau Gasol's pants is a matter of some debate, and Kobe Bryant is seemingly ready to start punching and kicking literally everyone, an approach to problem-solving that seems dubious, at best.

There's still plenty of time, of course, for Mike D'Antoni's crew to figure things out and for the Lakers to work themselves into the kind of inside-out/outside-in/everywhere-at-once offensive marvel that nobody wants to play come late spring; with the eventual reintegration of Nash into the lineup and better health and general comportment from (or, failing that, perhaps the trade of) Gasol, it seems a more reasonable bet that the Lakers will end the season having won more than half their games than that they'll finish up south of .500. Still, though, the Lakers went from a team that many (including us) expected to work as a no-doubt title favorite to a team whose championship chances — both now and going forward, considering the advancing ages of Bryant, Nash and Gasol — seem a bit shaky, to say the least.

This doesn't sound quite like what Dwight Howard signed up for when — at the end of a long, messy and very public divorce with the Magic that he later attributed to wanting everybody to love him — he made his way west in search of fame, fortune and, above all else, titles. And Howard — who's still set to hit free agency this summer — apparently intimated as much during a recent conversation with John Denton of the Magic's official website (emphasis mine):

[...] while he said it upset him having to divorce himself from the Magic and the Orlando fan base, Howard, 26, said his decision to leave ultimately came to being where he thought he had the best chance to win. And Howard, who can become an unrestricted free agent in July, even hinted that if he didn't think he could win in L.A., he would move on from Southern California in the summer.

"You only get one shot. People might not ever understand that, but at the end of the day it's not their life. You can't let anybody else dictate how they want your life to be," he said. "I only have one shot to play and do something that I love. Not everybody is blessed and have an opportunity to do what they love.

"So I want to do it the best that I can and I'm going to take everything in I can to get what I can out of the NBA. Which, for me, is winning a championship," he added. "So if I have to play on another team or do whatever I have to do to get one, that's my goal. This is my passion, so I'll continue to fight."

First off: In the interest of giving Howard the benefit of the doubt, it's important to note that we don't know the context in which he offered the remark to Denton. While I don't have any particular reason to doubt Denton's reporting, it is within the realm of possibility that what Howard meant to reference in using the phrase "if I have to play on another team" was his much-discussed exit from Orlando, a topic about which he was asked — again, and again, and again — in both the lead-up to and aftermath of Sunday night's game, rather than an eventual departure from Staples Center.

[Related: Kobe issues stern warning to Lakers teammates after losing again]

Now, that said: If Howard did mean what he said precisely as he said it and in the exact context in which Denton presents it, that would seem to pose a monstrous problem for a Lakers franchise that's clearly staked its claim on cementing Howard as its signature marquee star after the 34-year-old Bryant, 38-year-old Nash and 32-year-old Gasol exit the franchise.

For those who've forgotten Howard's contract status in the months since it was seemingly all anyone talked about, he is now in the final season of the five-year, $83.2 million max deal he signed with Orlando back in the summer of 2007. Prior to his trade from Orlando to Los Angeles, Howard's agents (like representatives for fellow trade piece Andrew Bynum) had repeatedly said the 26-year-old All-Star would not sign a contract extension with any team that traded for him, preferring instead to wait until the summer after his existing deal ends, in which the team that last held his rights can offer him another five-year max-level deal worth approximately $100 million, while other interested suitors (a group that some have speculated would include the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks, among others) could offer him a four-year deal worth roughly $80 million.

Financially speaking, then, it would be in Howard's best interests to wait until after the season and then re-up with L.A., and reports at the time of the trade suggested that Howard had already privately told Laker brass he would do just that. While fans and former employees of the Magic likely had a nice laugh at the premise of a Howard promise being sound as oak, re-signing with the Lakers seemed like a no-brainer heading into the season, when we all expected that running with Bryant, Nash, Gasol, Metta World Peace and the boys would be in Howard's best interests from a competitive perspective, too. Now, though, with the team struggling, the Laker organization seeming like it's in a stranger and less steady place than it's been in years and Howard saying he is frustrated by his teammates' lack of energy, quotes like the one he offered to Denton make those best-laid summertime plans seem just a bit more tenuous.

If Howard reaches the end of his contract, decides he values the opportunity to win a title more than getting the absolute bottom dollar on his next contract, determines that going to a team that is not the Lakers will give him a better shot at winning that ring, and chooses to sign with that team for less money than he could have made in L.A., there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of that. I mean, it'd be funny and insane to think that, after the seemingly endless psychodrama of leaving Orlando and the Lakers' status as one of the NBA's two signature historic dynastic championship-winning franchises, Howard would believe another pasture greener from a "count-tha-ringz" perspective. But if he honestly felt that way and backed it up by putting pen to paper elsewhere this summer, that'd be his prerogative and right.

Still: It's great to see that Howard's senses of timing and self-awareness remain acute and razor-sharp as ever.

At a point in the season where the Lakers have changed head coaches, posted bad losses that have overshadowed their moments of triumph, continue to operate without the one ball-distributing savant whom everyone seems to think might be able to bring balance to the Force (well, in the absence of that other one, at least) and have just been publicly called out by their leader and top star, their shiny new centerpiece says something that could be construed as looking for a way out of Dodge if things don't improve. With the city burning and everyone just worrying about putting out the existing fires, the Howard quote reads like a suggestion that the eventual disaster relief and recovery funding will be slow in coming and not quite as robust as expected.

Compounding present problems by raising the prospect of future tumult is just about the last thing the Lakers need in this situation. If you feel compelled to say something like this — and to say it to a guy who writes for the website of the team you just left in horrifically acrimonious fashion — then why say it now? It just seems like such a weird decision to make.

/stops and thinks

Then again, maybe this is a good thing for Lakers fans. If Dwight's making curious statements and seemingly illogical public statements to reporters, then maybe he's closer to the version of Dwight we saw in Orlando than ever.

Hat-tip to Steven Muma at SB Nation.

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