LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Lakers players met at the middle of the court Saturday afternoon as they typically do after practice. This time, however, Kobe Bryant wasn't there to dispense his usual wisdom – or wrath.
As Bryant prepared to undergo surgery at a nearby hospital for a season-ending Achilles tear, Dwight Howard took his place as the Lakers' voice of reason. He told his teammates they could still become a great team, even though most observers would expect them to fail. More than anything, he told them not to dwell on the past.
Howard better get used to the role. With Bryant out for the remainder of this season – whether it be two games or a playoff run – the Lakers are Howard's to lead. Now, and maybe for the foreseeable future.
"I told them that they put this team together for a reason," Howard said. "…We all have done special things in our career before and we can do it again. We've all been blessed to play with Kobe, but we all have talents, too. We have to show them."
Bryant has been the Lakers' unquestioned leader since Shaquille O'Neal was traded nine years ago. The Lakers traded for Howard last summer with the hopes that he would eventually transition into their franchise star after Bryant retired. The timetable has been moved up a bit: The Lakers need to lean on Howard now, even though he's played through his own injury problems this season and will become a free agent on July 1.
"He's been trying to be a vocal leader throughout the year," Gasol said of Howard. "Since he got here he feels some type of ownership of this team. That's something we have to respect. The franchise wants him here long-term, so I'm sure that's why he feels that way."
Said Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni: "The biggest thing is you have to go out there and back it up. And he will – and they will."
Bryant finished the season averaging a Lakers-best 27.3 points on 20.4 field-goal attempts and eight free-throw attempts per game. Jodie Meeks will start in Bryant's place, but the Lakers aren't counting on him to fill those scoring responsibilities. Howard will likely have to assume the bulk of that.
Starting point guard Steve Nash has missed the past six games with a hamstring and hip injuries. His status for Sunday's meeting with the San Antonio Spurs is officially being called a game-time decision. If he can't go, the Lakers will likely use Pau Gasol to help facilitate their offense. In either case, Howard will likely see an increase in his shots.
Despite being hampered by bothersome back and shoulder injuries, Howard is averaging 20.8 points in April, his best month offensively as a Laker. Yet the Lakers also must fear his 49.4 free-throw percentage, which could limit his opportunities in crunch time.
"It's a team, but the ball should automatically go to [Howard] more because somebody has to take the shots," D'Antoni said. "And if the ball isn't going to Kobe, it has to go to somebody."
Howard sounded up for the Kobe challenge.
"Of course, this team is going to ride my back, even though my back is still healing," he said. "I feel like I can do all things to take this team to the next level."
Whether that commitment extends beyond this season remains undetermined. Howard will become an unrestricted free agent this summer and will likely be courted by the Dallas Mavericks and his hometown Atlanta Hawks. He has publicly expressed some interest in re-signing with the Lakers, but has stopped short of guaranteeing he will be back.
"That's for this summer," Howard said. "Right now, like I said, there are two games we have left and the playoffs. I'm not looking at anything right now. The only thing that matters is us winning a championship this year. This summer won't do anything right now, so there is no need to sit up there and talk about it.
"…My concern is right now."
[Related: Kobe Bryant vents about injury on Facebook]
Howard spoke with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak for several minutes after Saturday's practice. Kupchak now has an opportunity to see how Howard handles his increased leadership role. For now, the Lakers hope only that role lasts beyond Wednesday and into the playoffs.
"He's the main guy," Kupchak said. "Certainly, a lot is going to fall on his shoulders."
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