LOS ANGELES – Dwight Howard took an early exit on Sunday in the final chapter of the Los Angeles Lakers season. With 9:51 remaining in the third quarter of Game 4 against the San Antonio Spurs, Howard was ejected following his second technical foul. As Howard slowly walked off the floor at Staples Center, he slapped his teammates' hands, offered some words as he walked by general manager Mitch Kupchak and headed to the locker room in perhaps his last moments in a Laker uniform.
"It's like a nightmare," Howard said after Los Angeles suffered a 103-82 defeat that swept it out of Round 1 of the playoffs. "It's like a bad dream and we couldn't wake up out of it. That's what it felt like.
"It seemed like nothing could go right, right from the start, injuries and all that stuff. We get an opportunity to get some rest for guys who are injured. A chance to rehab and think about what we can all do to better ourselves."
When asked if the last part of that statement reflected optimism toward returning, Howard said: "You're reading too much into it."
Howard will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. The Lakers can pay him more than anyone else with a five-year, maximum $117.9 million contract. By departing to the likes of the Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks or Dallas Mavericks, which have the salary cap space, Howard would take a pay cut with a four-year, $87.6 million max deal. Howard is just 27 years old and could potentially make up a lost $30 million of his contract down the road. But who walks away from $30 million, especially someone still recovering from major back surgery?
"I'm going to step away from everything for a couple of weeks," Howard said. "I'm going to clear my head before I do or talk about anything as far as next season. I think I deserve that and that's what I'm going to do."
Howard averaged 17.1 points per game this season, his lowest average in five years, but led the league with 12.4 rebounds in 35.8 minutes per game. Even with Howard's injury concerns, the Lakers can't afford to lose him for nothing.
"Coming back super early from a major surgery was tough," Howard said. "I tried to give everything I had and leave it on the floor. I was in pain for the whole season. I just wanted to try to play through it, fight through it. Even though I'm hurting, I'm still standing and I'm just going to keep fighting."
The Lakers have numerous roster decisions to make and an amnesty clause to use, if needed. Uncertainty is at every corner, and that's assuming Bryant is back healthy from an Achilles tendon injury. Pau Gasol, no stranger to trade discussions, could've played his last game as a Laker, too. He was given a standing ovation Sunday when he came out for good in Game 4.
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Howard is expected to exercise his due diligence in free agency in large part due to the uncertainty with the Lakers' roster, said an NBA source close to the situation.
"He's going to sign a long-term deal," the source said. "It has to be the right spot, the right commitment. There is no clear choice. The Lakers choice has longevity. They've won a lot of championships. But at the same time, that's not where they're at any more."
Other factors in Howard's decision are whether he can co-exist with Bryant and coach Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo system.
Howard and Bryant aren't best friends, but they don't hate each other either. The two All-Stars have grown to respect each other after enduring this horrible campaign and appear to have become closer since Bryant suffered his injury.
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"We had a pretty good relationship before I got here," Howard said about Bryant. "I think a lot of people have twisted a lot of things. The fake fights. Arguments we supposedly had. We've maintained a pretty good relationship. I want to continue to be there for him throughout the process he has to go through recovering from his Achilles.
D'Antoni told the Los Angeles Times he could change his offense to better fit the team. When asked if playing for D'Antoni again could be a situation that is beneficial for him, Howard said: "I don't want to talk about anything for the upcoming season. I just want to reflect on this year and try to get myself better and come back 100 percent."
Yes, getting away from it all certainly makes sense for Howard. He has two months to figure it out before free agency begins.
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