Lakers center Dwight Howard, sitting with teammates on the bench Friday… (Julie Jacobson / Associated…)
LAS VEGAS -- There's one question that continues to pick at Dwight Howard. When will you return?
It's immaterial really; the Lakers center is set to play an exhibition game at some point over the next week before taking part in the regular-season opener Oct. 30 against Dallas.
The more important query looms in the distance. Will Howard be with the Lakers next October?
He's in the last year of a contract paying him $19.5 million this season and is in the long-term Lakers' plans. He just doesn't want to discuss whether they're in his future plans.
"I'm not going to get into that stuff," Howard said Friday in a quiet moment before the Lakers last to Sacramento, 103-98, in an exhibition game at Thomas and Mack Center.
"I'm happy that I'm here. This year is very important, and I'm looking forward to doing some great things here."
It makes financial sense for Howard, 26, to stay. He could re-sign for five years and $117.9 million, as opposed to a four-year, $87.6-million deal with another team.
"Our feeling is that if he's with us for a year, then our chances are as good as any chances to have him return," Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said. "That's been our take all along — just get him to Los Angeles in front of our fans and play with the guys that we have on this team and then this summer we'll see where it ends up."
People close to Howard said he would base a majority of his decision on how the Lakers fared this season. If they successfully blend their new pieces and go far in the playoffs, it makes his decision a no-brainer.
Howard seems to be having fun in Los Angeles, enjoying his West Coast celebrity status and recently moving from the Beverly Hills Hotel to a rental property in the hills north of UCLA.
He's been chatty with reporters, sharing stories of his ever-growing collection of dogs and an addiction to old-school video game systems (Nintendo, Atari, etc.).
He's definitely not dull in the locker room. Before Friday's game, he tweeted photos of rookie Darius Johnson-Odom sleeping in front of his locker an hour before tipoff. Only a handful of people saw it. Howard has 3.5 million followers on Twitter.
The only question about Howard now is when he'll debut with the Lakers. He might play Sunday against Sacramento at Staples Center.
"I want to hopefully play in a couple preseason games, or at least one," he said. "There's no rush."
The Lakers could use him down low, whenever he returns.
They slogged through another weak effort Friday, falling to 0-5 in exhibition play for the first time, though it's an unofficial stat because their preseason record-keeping goes only as far back as 1982.
Kobe Bryant looked sharp with 22 points, six rebounds and four assists but the Lakers were slow on defense, allowing 28 fastbreak points.
If the Lakers re-sign Howard, they'll have only $31 million on their payroll for the 2014-15 season, well below the present-day salary cap of $58 million.
Steve Nash is the Lakers' only other player currently under contract that season.
"Everything we do, there's normally a reason why we do it," Kupchak said. "It is something that we're conscious of. It creates some options and flexibility for us, but that's two years down the road. You can't begin to plan that far in advance in this business."
There could be some intriguing free agents in July 2014, including LeBron James and Kevin Love.