With 29 regular-season games remaining and the playoffs still in sight, Kobe Bryant is more determined than ever to prove he and the Lakers can become the force they thought they were.
Whether center Dwight Howard is a part of that attempted revival doesn’t matter to Bryant, sources familiar with Bryant’s thinking told FOX Sports Ohio.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has strongly nixed the notion that Howard could be moved prior to Thursday’s trading deadline. But if Kupchak changes his mind, he’d have Bryant’s full support, according to sources.
While Bryant and Howard aren’t close, no rift exists between them, either. Still, Bryant appears uncertain if Howard is the right fit on a team that must put together a fervent finish just to qualify for the postseason — and one that is unlikely to possess home-court advantage in any round if it does get there.
The Lakers exited the All-Star break at an underachieving 25-29 and 3½ games out of the final playoff spot.
Optimists will point to the fact they’ve won eight of their previous 12 games. But they lost 125-101 to the Clippers on the final night before All-Star weekend — in a game that resembled little more than 48 minutes of garbage time.
The acquisitions of Howard and point guard Steve Nash prior to the season immediately made the Lakers the popular favorite to win the Western Conference. They were considered a sure title contender, boasting a lineup that could greatly assist the 34-year-old Bryant in his quest to obtain a sixth championship ring.
Instead, the Lakers started slowly, fired coach Mike Brown after five games, replaced Brown with Mike D’Antoni, and have continued to look out of sorts.
Howard alone can hardly be blamed, and Bryant even admires how Howard has played through back and shoulder pain. But sources say Bryant also wonders if Howard has the right approach, mental toughness and overall willingness to help the Lakers flourish in what has become their most important stretch.
Bryant is not alone in his concern, sources say. Nash, Pau Gasol and several others also seem fairly uneasy about Howard’s commitment to the cause.
According to sources, a number of Lakers have their doubts about whether Howard takes the game seriously and “wants it” enough for the challenges the team now faces.
Howard’s $19.2 million contract is second-highest on the Lakers (behind Bryant) and expires at the end of the season. It is believed he too would be OK with a trade, and likely welcome one if he were sent to a preferred destination. Brooklyn and Dallas are said to be among the teams with which Howard would agree to a contract extension this summer.
Sources insist it’s still possible Howard could re-sign with the Lakers, but that he hasn’t made up his mind and won’t come to such a decision until the season plays out.
Kupchak has denied a CBS Sports report the Lakers were toying with the idea of trading Howard to the Celtics in a deal for point guard Rajon Rondo, out for the season with an ACL injury.
However, sources say Kupchak has indeed taken several calls centered on Howard. So far, according to sources, Kupchak has quickly shot down any pitches.