Well, if you had any doubt that the Los Angeles Lakers wanted free-agent-to-be Dwight Howard to sign a long-term maximum-level contract to wear forum blue and gold for the next few years rather than seeking a new home, you need look no further than the Figueroa Street-facing side of Staples Center:
Whether slapping a plea on a billboard does L.A. any good remains to be seen — it didn't work out so hot for the last folks who tried it — but clearly, Lakers brass wants to make sure the All-Star center knows that they want him to stick around, in big, bold, declarative, in-no-way-uncertain terms.
Those terms were echoed by Mitch Kupchak during a "state of the Lakers" chat on Tuesday, in which the Lakers' general manager emphasized that retaining the 27-year-old pivot is the team's top offseason priority. From Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times:
"Dwight is in the category of the great of the great," Kupchak said. "He's over his back injury and there's no reason he can't play seven, eight more years at that position. There's no doubt in my mind if he does, he's in the Hall of Fame. Those players are just hard to come by." [...]
"We're looking a year or two down the road when we have the transition into another era, which is why the Dwight [decision] is very, very important," Kupchak said.
Kupchak boiled that decision, and the franchise's desire to keep Howard, down to just three words: "He's our future."
This, of course, is exactly what Kupchak said in dismissing any rumors of moving Howard before the Feb. 21 trade deadline. This makes sense, because the whole point of moving heaven and earth to acquire Howard in a four-team deal — a deal Kupchak believed was dead just before it was done — was always to lock Howard in as the on-court centerpiece and off-court face of the NBA's glamour franchise in the post-Kobe Bryant era.
While the Mamba might now be looking to delay the dawn of a new day a bit longer than he'd previously let on, the sun always rises, and Kupchak wants to be prepared when it does, according to Pincus:
"We're closer to the end of that era than we are to the beginning of it," Kupchak said. "We know with Jerry West, Wilt [Chamberlain], Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and Magic [Johnson] — everything at some point and time comes to an end. We're trying to plan for that."
And ever since the phone lines started heating up last summer, that plan has always included Howard.
Sure, Dwight might rumble about possibly looking elsewhere, and the Atlanta Hawks might stoke season ticket-holders' hopes with illicit references to a hoped-for-but-unlikely (especially now) Howard-Chris Paul pairing, and Chandler Parsons could continue to do something that sure as heck seems like tampering (even if the NBA doesn't penalize it) in an attempt to lure Howard to the Houston Rockets, and so on and so forth. But ultimately, the Lakers' course was simple — get Dwight here, make Dwight the focal point, make sure Dwight knows he's the focal point, offer Dwight about one more contract year and about $30 million in total salary than any other team can, and see if he'll really walk. You get the sense that they've never for a second believed he actually would, no matter how difficult this funhouse-mirror Lakers season got, and you don't get the sense that they do now.
This might seem to some "pathetic" or somehow beneath a franchise as proud as the Lakers. But making a public, committed pitch to retain a critical talent might also indicate the evaporation of the notion that gravity doesn't apply to the Lakers, and an acknowledgment that, in the brave new world of a more restrictive collective bargaining agreement, nobody gets to rest on their laurels. That doesn't seem like such a bad thing for a Lakers team to whom most of us ceded at least a shot at the '12-'13 crown before everything came crashing down. Putting on a full-court press to retain Howard — who, for all his well-publicized struggles in his first season in L.A., still posted top-10 finishes in rebounding rate, block percentage, Effective Field Goal percentage and Defensive Win Shares while averaging 17 and 12 a game in a down season — doesn't, either.