|Could Howard's days in L.A. be numbered? (Getty Images)|
Just when you thought it was over, he pulls you back in.
What has been oft forgotten this season, or at least overlooked, is that Dwight Howard remains unsigned. He's still set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer despite the torture that he put everyone through last year in Orlando.
And with the Lakers' frustrations and his diminishing role, the grumbles about Howard are beginning. Could the Lakers abort their current super-plan and shop him before the deadline? Or will Howard simply choose to walk in July?
Both are possibilities, according to ESPN.com:
But sources told ESPN.com this week the Lakers might be forced to reconsider that position between now and the Feb. 21 trade deadline because of Howard's growing unhappiness with his role under coach Mike D'Antoni and the potential that raises for Howard leaving them in July without compensation.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, however, said that a trade is not imminent.
"I don't think we're at the point where you say, 'It's time for a trade,' and a trade happens in three to four days. That's just not how this league works," Kupchak said in a phone interview with ESPN.
Howard has not publicly indicated any desire to sign elsewhere when he becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1 and came to Los Angeles determined to succeed with a minimum amount of fuss after the hits he took image-wise during his drawn-out departure from the Orlando Magic. But sources say that Howard, as the Lakers' struggles have mounted, has dropped hints within team circles about his discomfort in D'Antoni's system and that he could consider moving on if things don't improve or change.
All the talk recently about a deal involving a Lakers big man has centered around Pau Gasol, but is there a possibility that Kupchak and the Lakers' brass might choose to keep Gasol and move Howard instead? Gasol has been completely marginalized under D'Antoni as he's struggled to find footing on the floor alongside Howard, who clogs the paint. It's become apparent that one of the two likely needs to go, as illustrated by D'Antoni's recent decision to bring Gasol off the bench for good.
But the interesting part here is Howard's growing unhappiness. Is it just the losing, or is it his role? Or a suffocating combination of the two? Kobe recently said he feels like a fool forcing it to Howard just because, which suggests the Lakers don't really have a precise plan to involve Howard.
"Obviously, this isn't working," Kobe told Yahoo Sports after losing to the Bulls on Monday.
Do the Lakers really cut ties with him, especially if he's frustrated to the point of considering not re-signing in the summer? According to the report, the Lakers aren't indicating to other teams they intend to make a move, but things change. Especially as the losses and frustrations pile up.
So let's speculate a tad. Say the Lakers do decide to wash their hands of this mess and hit the restart button. Who are the potential trade partners? Obviously, you have to start with the names of teams that Howard would be likely to circle this summer as potential destinations -- Dallas and Atlanta being the probable top two spots.
The Mavs lack real assets to entice the Lakers but will have ample cap space in the summer if Howard can hold off until then. The Hawks, on the other hand, have the perfect piece to dangle in Josh Smith if they felt forced to move now. Smith is a player who would likely fit beautifully next to Gasol and is an ideal four for D'Antoni's system. And, of course, Atlanta is Howard's hometown.
Then there are the Nets, who fancied Howard quite a lot but couldn't work a deal and seem to be enjoying the Brook Lopez era just fine. You never know, though; their fascination with Howard could make them do something drastic and shake up a good team in an effort to take another step forward.
We're still not exactly close to that scenario yet, though. The Lakers need to bottom out, and Howard needs to become a little more publicly disgruntled. Because right now, it's just whispers and anonymous sources doing the grumbling, which doesn't suggest the Lakers are being bullied by Howard.
But this at least serves as a valuable reminder: The Dwightmare is over when Dwight Howard says it's over. Or at least signs long-term somewhere.