By Rob Mahoney
Dwight Howard's future with the Lakers is very much an open question. There's still ample reason to believe he'll stay in Los Angeles to slum it out with one of the most glamorous and successful franchises in professional sports, but this season's maladies have, at the very least, provided the backdrop for a perfectly reasonable departure. The Lakers have been that bad, and with internal frustrations mounting, Howard could seek greener pastures as a free agent this summer.
And if that winds up being the case, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports suggests that Howard's eventual exodus could have quite a bit to do with his relationship with coach Mike D'Antoni. From Wojnarowski's column:
This has rapidly turned into a lost season for Howard, but it would be foolish to declare his Lakers career a lost cause. For those who've called the Lakers on Howard's availability -- the Dallas Mavericks and the Atlanta Hawks -- the message has been unmistakable: Howard isn't available, nor will that change before the February deadline.
Bryant won't chase Howard out of here, but multiple sources tell Yahoo! Sports that the only issue that would give Howard pause on re-signing with the Lakers would be D'Antoni. In the end, D'Antoni is a coach who fundamentally doesn't believe in post play, who sees franchise centers as intrusive cloggers of the lane.
The Lakers understand that Los Angeles gives everything Howard wants to be a global star, gives him the guarantee of a five-year, $100 million extension this summer. They don't believe he'll walk, and yet as one source tied to the Lakers and Howard says: "Even if they're right, and Dwight stays, do you want Dwight unhappy and feeling uninvolved with D'Antoni?"
The notion that D'Antoni doesn't believe in post play is less than true. Floor spacing is clearly paramount to D'Antoni's system, but it's not as though he has an established track record of marginalizing post-up centers; he never trotted Shaquille O'Neal out to the corners to hoist up threes, and beyond Shaq, D'Antoni really hasn't had any conventional, post-up bigs at his disposal. Some of that is by team-building design, but we shouldn't take that to mean that D'Antoni is categorically against post play. He simply believes what many basketball analysts know to be true: Post-up possessions are useful, but they're ultimately less efficient than the derivative options of his spread pick-and-roll system -- one that should be great for a player with Howard's skill set.
Yet all that really matters in these cases is perception, and as long as Howard thinks that D'Antoni's system doesn't favor his abilities, it could factor in his decision this summer or continue to affect his play. Either way, that's a problem for a Lakers team banking on Howard both in the present and for the future, especially considering that D'Antoni just scored a three-year, $12 million deal from L.A. on top of the severance salary owed to Mike Brown. Even though D'Antoni hasn't done a good job of managing the Lakers' on-court problems thus far, firing him for Howard's sake hardly makes more sense than when the Magic canned Stan Van Gundy for similar reasons. It's crucial for coaches and star players to build a successful working relationship, but given Howard's shapeless preferences, it may not be in a franchise's best interest to cater so directly to his every want. That may put the team in a precarious position heading toward this summer, but nothing about the relationship between D'Antoni, Howard and the Lakers' offense on the whole is beyond saving.