Will Dwight Howard's future include the Lakers? (Damian Dovarganes / Associated…)
Dwight Howard's future is the key to almost everything the Lakers do moving forward.
The free-agent center can re-sign in July for five years and $118 million or leave for another team for four years and $88 million.
Howard insisted after his exit meeting with General Manager Mitch Kupchak and Coach Mike D'Antoni that he has earned the right to be happy. His choice is a personal one but will have a wide-reaching impact.
The season ended early for Howard with an ejection in the third quarter of Game 4 against the San Antonio Spurs, but he started the year much earlier than expected.
When the Lakers traded Andrew Bynum for Howard, the Orlando Magic center was recovering from back surgery. His return was estimated for December or January. Howard pushed to return by opening night. He wasn't in shape after taking off the entire summer, but by the All-Star break Howard started to round into form and the Lakers finished the season with a 28-12 record in their last 40 games.
Howard played in 76 games for the Lakers. Bynum didn't make a single appearance for the Philadelphia 76ers because of recurring knee problems.
A challenge along the way for Howard was a torn labrum in his right shoulder that knocked him out for six games. Playing through pain most of the season, Howard averaged 17.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocked shots a game. He shot 57.8% from the field but only 49.2% from the line.
Free throws were a problem as teams often fouled him intentionally. Against the Magic in Orlando, Howard hit 25 of 39 free throws while scoring a season-high 39 points.
In a loss to the Denver Nuggets in January, Howard collected 26 rebounds.
When the Lakers needed two final wins to secure a playoff position after Kobe Bryant was lost for the season with an Achilles' tendon tear, Howard averaged 22 points, 17.5 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 3.5 blocks against the Houston Rockets and Spurs.
By the time the team hit the playoffs, the Lakers were relying on inexperienced guards Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock with all their veteran backcourt players sidelined with injuries.
Other than struggling at the line, Howard was an important force for the Lakers, especially defensively.
His offensive game has limitations. He doesn't have the size and dominance of a Shaquille O'Neal, but Howard is a mobile, capable defender. Howard can guard the pick and roll in ways O'Neal never could.
For the Lakers to be successful, assuming Howard re-signs, they'll need to bring in a crew of steady outside shooters to help space the floor.
Howard acknowledged that he didn't fully connect with fans in Los Angeles with the contract question hanging in the balance.
After earning $19.5 million this last season, he'll be eligible for a deal starting at $20.5 million, whether it's with the Lakers or another organization.
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Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.