Howard sees himself as a Laker in the future

Dwight Howard has been coy about his upcoming free-agent status, often dodging questions about it, but he provided his latest insights Tuesday after the Lakers’ shoot-around.

Does he see himself as the Lakers’ cornerstone after Kobe Bryant’s career ends?

“Yeah, I do. That’s what we’ve always talked about since the first day I got here,” he said.

When pressed further, Howard backed off slightly.

“The only thing that matters is right now. Nobody can control what happens this offseason,” Howard said. “There’s no need for me to make the decision right now to where I’m going to be in the future, but my goal hasn’t changed. I want to win a championship, and I want to win one here. I’m here right now.”

With the trade deadline looming, Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak put all rumors to rest, reiterating that he would not trade Howard.

“Dwight is our future,” Kupchak told ESPN on Wednesday. “Kobe (Bryant) has one more year on his deal (this year, plus one). That’s all I can bank on or this organization can bank on. I have no idea if he wants to continue to play beyond next year. As of now, we’re looking at a two-year window, (and that) plays to the urgency of the situation and how we build the team. … This team’s window to win is this year and next year.”

Kupchak later went on to praise Howard, saying he deserves a statue.

“He belongs to have his name on the wall (as a retired uniform) and a statue in front of Staples (Center) at some point in time,” Kupchak said.

Howard acknowledged he could do more to help the Lakers.

“I could be more. It starts with me,” he said, saying he needed to get in better shape while battling back and shoulder injuries. “I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me, but it is tough. It’s not as easy as I was expecting it to be, but I did come back early … I’m going to do whatever I can to really get my body, my mind and my spirit in the right place to help this team.”

Howard is in his final year of his contract, and the Lakers can offer him the biggest contract this summer, but there’s no guarantee he accepts.

Howard had surgery last April to repair a herniated disk in his back. He played in the Lakers’ season opener on Oct. 30.

He said he wouldn’t let public criticism bother him.

“I’m not going to allow that to change who I am and put me in a shell. I’m not going to let it defeat who I am as a person. I’ve always been the same person — fun-loving, I don’t have a bad bone in my body.”

But this is Los Angeles. And the always-driven Bryant is his teammate. Not to mention the through-the-roof expectations of Lakers fans.

“The spotlight is always on. I totally understand that, and I knew what I was getting into when I got here,” Howard said. “This is a great learning experience for me. This has made me a better person, a better man, and I’m looking forward to continuing to grow.”

Howard can sign a five-year, $118-million contract to stay with the Lakers or a four-year, $87.6-million deal with another team when he becomes a free agent in July.

-Mike Bresnahan