Dwight Howard wouldn't answer whether or not he was staying with the… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
There's unanimity within the Lakers. Kobe Bryant and General Manager Mitch Kupchak both want Dwight Howard to return.
There's also a problem within the Lakers: Howard isn't so sure.
He declined to reveal which way he was leaning after his one-year run with the Lakers.
"I'm going to take my time, get away from the game, my phones and everything and just clear my head," Howard said Tuesday in an end-of-season interview at the team's practice facility. "I'll do what's going to be best for myself, what's going to make me happy. I can't control who likes me, who dislikes me, but I have the right to be happy."
Bryant said it was "very important" for Howard to return. Kupchak also stated his case, expressing confidence in "selling the Los Angeles Lakers" to him.
"I think he has complete faith in the organization. I think he does like living here. I think it's all good, which leads me to why I'm optimistic," Kupchak said. "But if there's something here that we're lacking, I don't know what it is."
Howard can't visit other teams until becoming a free agent at 9 p.m. on June 30. Dallas, Houston and Atlanta are among the other possibilities and can offer a maximum of four years and $88 million. Howard can re-sign with the Lakers for five years and $118 million.
"I think he understands that the sooner he makes a decision, the better it is for everybody," Kupchak said. "I don't know if that means a week, a month or seven weeks."
Kupchak didn't think the Lakers' coach would make a difference in Howard's decision.
"I think he's fine with Mike D'Antoni," Kupchak said.
Bryant also had a recruiting pitch for him.
"I think Los Angeles is the perfect spot for him to assert himself, kind of put his foot down and have his career really take off and be what it should be. There's no greater place for centers to play than here in Los Angeles," he said.
Bryant predicted Howard would stay with the team.
"From a business standpoint it makes more sense, both contractually and also perception-wise," Bryant said. "A lot of things go well for you if you win here."
Perhaps the only definite part about Howard is the need to have his ailing right shoulder examined. He will see a specialist Wednesday about the torn labrum he sustained this season. He hoped he wouldn't need surgery.
Bryant also pitched Kupchak to keep Pau Gasol despite crushing luxury-tax implications. Bryant wants the Lakers to go for it one last time, though their luxury taxes skyrocket from $30 million to $85 million next season if they again have a $100-million payroll.
"I understand the cap situation, so that's always a concern, but all I can do is just voice my opinion.... Obviously, I'm not the one that has to cut the check," Bryant said. "To me, it's a no-brainer. We need him to get to where we need to go."
And, no, players cannot negotiate existing contracts downward to circumvent the salary cap in the NBA.
Gasol didn't get a strong indication of his future after meeting with Kupchak on Tuesday. The Lakers can't give him any resolution until Howard decides what to do.
Gasol said he understood the "business side" of the Lakers.
They can waive him during the one-week "amnesty" window in July and not pay taxes on his salary. Or they could trade him.
"The future's uncertain, there's no doubt about it," said Gasol, who won two championships and took part in a third NBA Finals in 5½ seasons with the Lakers. "I understand the challenges that the franchise is facing.… I wish things were a little simpler, but they're not."
Gasol and Howard could both be on the roster next season, Kupchak said. It would be very difficult, though, even unfeasible, for the Lakers to keep both high-priced big men under the economics of the new collective-bargaining agreement.
The Lakers were swept in the first round by San Antonio, dragged down by injuries and ineffectiveness, symptoms really of their entire season. Kupchak, however, pointed to the team's 28-12 record in its last 40 games as a sign of progress.
"That would indicate that this team can contend for a championship," he said.
But Kupchak didn't guarantee anybody's job security when asked about Gasol.
"When you lose, everything is in play," he said.
Kupchak used humor to deflect a question about the Lakers' likely use of the amnesty provision on either Gasol, Bryant, Metta World Peace or Steve Blake.
"Can I refer this to Mark Cuban? He's our amnesty expert," Kupchak said.
Bryant optimistic health-wise
Bryant still thinks he'll be back in time for the start of next season.
"But we'll see," he said. The timetable for his return was six to nine months after he sustained a torn Achilles' tendon April 12.
He had his left knee parked on a padded scooter as he entered the media room for his interview Tuesday.
"It's a sneaky injury in the sense that I don't feel any pain," Bryant said. "Sometimes I forget I'm injured and I stand up and I go to put weight on it and I catch myself."
Bryant said he wasn't sure whether his extensive minutes caused the injury, but "we had to make that push to get into the playoffs … and it happened."
It was his choice to average 45.6 minutes over his last seven games, he said, smiling.
"Of course it was. Mike is really going to tell me when to go in and out of the game?"
Bryant said the Lakers needed more length, speed and athleticism on their roster. Seems like a long list, but he didn't think the team should be dismantled.
"We could win a championship, no doubt about it," he said, adding that injuries "put a wet blanket" on their season.
He gave one final accolade about the Lakers' ability to restock whenever necessary.
"It seems to me that this organization … always seems to land on its feet. It's just one of those franchises, man," Bryant said.
Then he was gone, scooting away into the underbelly of the team's training facility.