Los Angeles Lakers: Dwight Howard
Lakers sources indicated to ESPN that the team is still weighing the situation carefully and "looking at everything."
After agreeing to terms with veteran center Chris Kaman earlier in the day on a one-year, $3.2 million contract, the Lakers have only veteran minimum contracts remaining to fill out their roster.
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant made his feelings about the situation clear. Bryant first tweeted that "No game 7 win without Metta! This is a tough day for laker nation #misspeace #newcbacasualty," then followed it up with a subsequent tweet saying "Personally I'd keep Metta and make a run with the unit we have and just add a few pieces #keepthepeace #lakersstilldeciding."
While he was at it, Bryant offered his first public comments about center Dwight Howard's decision to leave the Lakers and sign with the Houston Rockets. Bryant had un-followed Howard on Twitter and also posted a photo of Gasol and Bryant together on the court via his Instagram account after Howard announced he had decided to join the Rockets on Friday.
"I wish d12 the best honestly," Bryant tweeted. "I just find it hard to follow players that wanna kick my teams ass #thatsjustme."
Howard was expected to follow the Lakers’ Hall of Fame lineage of centers but decided to leave L.A. less than a year after joining the team to sign with the Houston Rockets last week.
The two living legends in Howard’s old avatar, which he immediately changed after committing to Houston, have not taken the news well.
On Monday, Abdul-Jabbar chimed in on Twitter and Facebook and wrote, “Dwight Howard is a perfect example of the fact that ‘potential has a shelf life.’ Laker fans should be patient and allow Mitch & company to prepare themselves to do some serious work in the free agent market.”
O’Neal, while speaking at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday, said he wasn’t surprised by Howard’s decision to take less money to leave Los Angeles for a smaller market.
"It was expected," O’Neal said. "We've all been in L.A., and not a whole lot of people can handle being under the bright lights. Everybody wants to do it, but when you get there, there are certain pressures. I think it was a safe move for him to go to a little town like Houston. That's right, little town. I said it."
Both O’Neal and Abdul-Jabbar were critical of Howard even before he decided to leave the Lakers.
Abdul-Jabbar told the San Francisco Chronicle last month he met Howard only once and that Howard expressed an interest in learning from the former Lakers captain but he never again reached out to Abdul-Jabbar. “He's charming, he's charismatic, very nice young man,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Maturity-wise, he doesn't get it."
When Abdul-Jabbar was asked about teaching Howard the sky hook, he said, “At least he'd have an offensive move.
“He gets the ball on offense, oh my God, he doesn't know what to do. It's usually a turnover, people come and take the ball from him or tie his arms up. Offensively, he doesn't get it. Hasn't made any progress. We (the Lakers, when Abdul-Jabbar was a special assistant coach) played them in '09, and when I saw him this past season, he was the same player.”
O’Neal was just as harsh in his criticism of Howard when he was on ESPNLA 710 last month.
“He's too nice," O'Neal said. "I'm a connoisseur of giggling and playing and all that and making you laugh and playing with the fans, but when I cross that line, I'm ready to tear your face off. I don't care who it is. You could put one of my aunts or uncles out there, and I'm going to give him these elbows in their chest and I'm going to throw it down in their face. That's what you have to do. ... He's just too nice. If I was him, I would get into the same mood I was in."
Howard’s frustration stems from not being as involved in the offense as he’s accustomed to, as evident from him posting the second-lowest usage percentage of his nine-year career (22.2 percent). With D’Antoni adjusting on the fly to an old and injured roster, and Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash needing touches, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Howard wasn’t utilized as often as he had been in the past.
Still, Howard’s free agency decision may very well come down to whether or not he believes he can flourish under D’Antoni’s guidance. The seven-time All-Star wants the ball run through the block, and not the perimeter, which was the case when Howard was the centerpiece of the Orlando Magic.
Though the Lakers can offer Howard a more talented roster than any of his other options, how the pieces mesh alongside him -- at least from his perspective -- is far from ideal. Howard wants to post up and spread the floor with an army of shooters, but that’s a difficult proposition given the Lakers’ key personnel.
Howard and Gasol have never been an optimal fit -- both players prefer to operate on the low block -- but Gasol’s passing ability and versatile skill set allow the two centers to coexist (much like he did with Andrew Bynum). Nash has spent most of his career as an elite practitioner of the pick-and-roll, so having him dump the ball in the post and spot up seems like a waste of his playmaking abilities. And, as Bryant kindly reminded everyone at the beginning of last season, he’s option No. 1 and will get his shots early and often.
If you compare the way the Lakers used Howard on offense in comparison with his Orlando days, one glaring difference sticks out: his decreased percentage of post-up plays.
In Howard’s final three seasons in Orlando, post-up plays comprised 57.5 percent of his possessions (2011-12), 59 percent of his possessions (2010-11) and 61 percent of his possessions (2009-10).
His percentage of post-up plays with the Lakers last season?
So, where did the other 12 to 16 percent of his offense go?
Pick-and-rolls (from 8.9 percent last season to 11.4 percent this season) and basket cuts (from 8.2 percent last season to 14.1 percent this season).
And what was the result?
A far less efficient version of Howard.
His true shooting percentage (57.3 percent) was well below his career average (59.8 percent), he produced the lowest offensive win shares of his career (2.8) and his turnover percentage crept up to the highest it’s been in three years (16.6 percent).
A significant portion of Howard’s struggles can be attributed to his shoulder and back injuries, which clearly hampered some of his athleticism and explosion. But even when Howard regained his mojo after the All-Star break, and his stats improved, he was hardly the dominant player that he or the Lakers had envisioned back in August.
This is where D’Antoni enters the equation.
Because of the sheer amount of offensive firepower at his disposal, D’Antoni tried adhering to the strengths of his players simultaneously, which often led to inconsistent results. This made Howard function less in the post and more on the move, as his increased involvement in pick-and-rolls and cuts showed.
That makes sense on paper because Howard has been among the league’s best pick-and-roll finishers for quite some time (he was ninth-best this season). But as Howard demonstrated throughout the season, he was reluctant to run the action consistently, especially if it meant compromising touches down low. Coupled with his decreased mobility, Howard’s turnovers (10.4 percent) and score percentage (68.9 percent) out of pick-and-rolls suffered considerably.
The challenge for D’Antoni then is figuring out how to fulfill Howard's wishes of posting up without ignoring the vast talent around him (and the post-up skills of Gasol and Bryant). His decision to have Howard play off of Gasol and Nash’s passing, and Bryant’s penetration, wasn’t as productive as he anticipated. For better or worse, Howard doesn’t enjoy running a ton of pick-and-rolls and cutting behind defenses; he seems to want to make post moves like the great big men before him.
Orlando had a specific system with versatile spot-up shooters at almost every position that allowed them to play through Howard and create open three-pointers out of all the attention he commanded.
The Lakers, meanwhile, don’t have the necessary shooting threats at each position to replicate what Howard wants. What they do have, however, is an elite shot-creator (Bryant), interior scorer (Gasol) and playmaker (Nash), the likes of which Howard has never played with. It’s a major adjustment for him, but one from which he could benefit.
As ESPN.com’s Bradford Doolittle pointed out, Howard appears to be searching for a center-centric offense that doesn't currently exist in the NBA. Most high-efficiency offenses now revolve around pick-and-rolls and the spacing and three-point shooting opportunities the play provides.
The closest the Lakers came to playing like Orlando was when Bryant went down with his Achilles injury and the Lakers began to post up more. For the season, post-ups accounted for 14.4 percent of the Lakers’ offense, but after Bryant went down, that figure jumped to at least 16.2 percent in the six remaining games (and topped 18 percent in five of the six contests).
It’s a small sample size, but an indication that D’Antoni is capable of adjusting to Howard’s inclinations. With Bryant possibly out until December or January, the Lakers would have a couple months to restructure the offense to appease Howard (if he re-signs), and then figure out how to readjust once Bryant returns.
For the partnership to be fruitful, Howard and D’Antoni each need to make sacrifices and find a reasonable compromise. Howard will have to accept that the Lakers are too talented to follow a simple offensive model that ignores the strengths of his teammates, and D’Antoni will have to settle for fewer pick-and-roll actions and more post-ups for No. 12.
That’s the only way this would work.
<i>Stats used in this post are from NBA.com/Stats, MySynergySports.com and Basketball-Reference.com.</i>
Despite the best efforts of Howard and his representatives not to create a frenzy around his meetings with the Rockets, Hawks, Warriors, Mavericks and Lakers this week, this process has been every bit the circus as what LeBron James went through in 2010. It's just been drawn out over a longer period, rather than condensed into a wild two weeks and made-for-TV announcement special. It has certainly been just as damaging to his reputation.
And yet as the process comes to a close finally, there's a palpable sense amongst all involved that the immediate emotional reaction to whatever Howard decides will not be despair or elation, but rather relief.
That it's finally over. That both Howard and everyone involved can move on. And at long last, there is clarity -- one way or another -- of where everyone stands.
It is an enormous moment for the Lakers franchise, Howard and all the other teams involved, and perfunctory one.
Howard will either stay or go, and from there the Lakers will either rejoice or regroup.
On one level it feels enormous -- like a referendum on the Lakers franchise, the strength of its brand and the franchise's great history in the NBA.
But on another level it doesn't seem like all that big of a deal at all. If Howard elects to leave, it will sting for a little while, but five minutes later the Lakers will move on to their 2014 strategy.
It will be a much bigger deal in Houston or Dallas or wherever Howard may choose to play if he leaves, of course. A franchise-defining moment for either club, not to mention a chance for the rest of the NBA to bask in some Lakers misfortune.
But even for Howard, the stakes seem somehow both ridiculously high and not that big of a deal at all.
He'll either go or stay, but the biggest development, the most meaningful one anyway, will be that it will all finally be over and he can, in the words of one source intimately involved in the process, "get back to focusing on becoming a champion."
The long Dwightmare, the process everyone involved in simply can't wait to be finished with, will be over soon. All that strutting and fretting upon the stage will just be another long NBA tale, signifying everything -- or nothing -- in the end.
Here's the scoop from Broussard:
Howard is willing to forgo the extra $30 million the Lakers can pay him to play for a coach and in a system he feels will better use his skill set, one source said.
The Lakers can offer Howard a five-year, $118 million contract, while other teams can pay him only $88 million over four years.
Howard plans to meet with the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks before meeting with the Lakers once teams are allowed to contact free agents beginning July 1, a source said. It appears that the teams will visit Howard in Los Angeles.
According to this breakdown by an accountant, the financial difference is realistically $9.3 million should Howard choose Houston over L.A.
But enough about why Howard would leave. The question for the Lakers is, what do they do if Howard does indeed bolt?
I explored this scenario when detailing the Lakers' offseason options a couple of weeks ago.
The first decision the Lakers would have to make is whether they plan to simply let Howard walk, or try to work with him on a sign-and-trade deal.
Johnson, an analyst for ESPN appearing on KIA NBA Countdown during the NBA Finals, was on a conference call Wednesday with reporters to discuss the Finals and not surprisingly, the subject of the Lakers came up.
Below is a transcript of Johnson's latest thoughts on the purple and gold:
Q: What do you think of Dwight Howard, what is best for him?
JOHNSON: "I can't tell you what's best for him -- for Dwight Howard. I think that he'll probably make the best decision possible for him.
"I would say that he will probably enjoy playing for Kevin McHale, because Coach McHale, not only was he a Hall of Fame player – and I feel with Tim Duncan, the best power forwards that have ever played the game – but you have an emerging superstar and a guy that you can definitely play with James Harden.
"And I think that the other young players that they have, (Omer) Asik and (Jeremy) Lin, (Chandler) Parsons, those guys are right there too, with Dwight Howard, will take the next step as being one of the elite teams – one of the best four or five teams in the league and definitely will give themselves a chance to win a championship.
"So that's really where it is. The Lakers have to decide what they want to do. Dwight has to decide what he wants to do.
"I don't think you're going to have enough money for Chris (Paul) and Dwight. I think you're going to have to concentrate on one or the other probably, and I don't know if they want to play together; if one will decide to take lesser money. Now, one might decide to take lesser money and join forces there. But if they both command top dollar, that's going to be hard for Houston to pull off."
Q: The state of the Lakers, where you see them now and a year from now?
JOHNSON: "The state now is really just making a decision on Dwight Howard. I know that the Buss family, Jim Buss, are interested in sitting down and trying to strategize to find out, what do they want to do. And once they make that decision, then the next thing is Kobe Bryant, his return. Hopefully he can come back strong and healthy. And then they have to decide if they want to add somebody or not.
"But a year from now, with all the cap space that they will have, I think the Lakers will be able to sign two or three players and I think it puts them right in position to be a great franchise for the next five years if they make the right decisions and the right moves.
"So I'm excited about next summer for the Lakers. I think it's going to be tremendous. The Lakers just can't make dumb decisions right now to mess up that cap space."
In 2013-14, they can only do more of the same. But 2014-15 is different.
Most Lakers fans are thinking in terms of bouncing back from this season and its disappointments next year. But they should be thinking about the promise of the year-after-next.
The word patience doesn’t usually go over well in LA. and the Lakers will never ask for it publicly, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need it from their fans right now.
Consider what’s inside the free agent store in the summer of 2014. And begin with LeBron James. I don’t know if he would consider Los Angeles, but the Lakers certainly want to be ready in case he does. And all is not lost if the Lakers have that flexibility in 2014 and don’t land the King. Also likely to be available would be Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Danny Granger, and Luol Deng. Possibly available would be Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Tony Parker and Zach Randolph.
If the organization were to cave to public pressure and press to make big changes during the current offseason, they would risk compromising next summer. It’s not worth it. Mitch Kupchak is certainly capable. Even with the current financial restrictions the Lakers face, Kupchak has pulled off some impressive deals. He did it last year with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
Outside of Howard & Nash, the acquisitions the Lakers have given their fans since their last title include names like Theo Ratliff, Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy and Jason Kapono. That excites no one, but maybe this year it should. If the Lakers pull off a deal for Francisco Garcia or Marquise Daniels this summer, that could mean that Kuphcak is protecting 2014.
And that’s exciting.
If the Lakers try to make real moves this offseason . . . and I mean REAL moves, geared toward trying to get back in title contention right away, they risk missing out on the potential of 2014.
And with Kobe Bryant coming off a major injury, there’s little reason to sell out this summer. Their best move might be to bring the same gang back and trim a little salary.
Bryant said in his exit interview that he wants the same group back: “If we can gain something positive from this season it's bringing most of the guys back. (We were) 5 games out of the playoffs and all of the sudden have this incredible run. It does something to the character of the group. To allow that to dissipate, it's a headache.”
He seems to think the same group, if healthy, can win it all. But here's the thing: it doesn’t matter if he’s right.
What matters is what comes after.
Mark Willard is the host of "ESPNLA Now" on ESPNLA 710 in Los Angeles.
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Pau Gasol left his exit meeting with general manager Mitch Kupchak on Tuesday with an increased sense that he may have played his last game with the Lakers.
“The future is uncertain,” Gasol said. “There’s no doubt about it. It’s a possibility that I could be gone and there’s a possibility that I could stay. I don’t know the exact percentages of it. But I’m prepared for either way.
“I understand the challenges that the franchise is facing, the decisions that they have to make in order to keep the team in the direction that they want to -- looking at the present and the future and also understanding the business side of it. So, it’s a lot going on. I wish things were a little simpler, but they’re not. So we’ll see.”
If the Lakers keep next season's payroll at about $100 million, as it was in 2012-13, the team would owe about $85 million in additional luxury-tax penalties because of the more punitive stipulations in the league’s new collective bargaining agreement.
Could Gasol and the rest of the Lakers' major pieces all be back next season? Kupchak said that possibility is “in play.”
“We haven’t ruled anything out as of now,” he said.
Yet Kupchak used similar language to admit that the opposite is also a possibility: "When you lose, everybody is in play ... whether it's Pau or anybody else, we'll look for ways to improve the team."
Gasol's contract has one year remaining at $19.3 million. From a financial perspective, the assumption was that the Lakers would try to trade his expiring deal or opt to use their one-time amnesty provision on the 12-year veteran.
“(Kupchak) couldn’t really tell me, ‘Hey, thanks for everything you’ve done, it’s more likely you’re going to be gone,’ or no, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’re going to stay here. We’re going to make it happen,’” Gasol said. “Which is to be expected. I appreciate Mitch’s honesty and everything that he’s done and the franchise has done for the last two years to keep me here and have me on the team.”
The two-year time frame Gasol was referring to started with his nearly being traded and has included a second-round exit from the playoffs last season, coach Mike Brown's being fired early this season, and a first-round sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs last week.
Gasol, who turns 33 in July, said his experience with the Lakers changed significantly after the three-way trade between the Lakers, Houston Rockets and New Orleans Hornets was vetoed by NBA commissioner David Stern on the eve of the first day of training camp for the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.
As he sat in front of his locker following the media scrum he said, “Look at what the Kings did last year. They got into the playoffs as the eight seed and won the Stanley Cup. We’re trying to do the same thing.”
Bryant attended a number of the Los Angeles Kings' playoff games with his daughters during their magical and improbable run to the Stanley Cup last summer and didn’t understand why it couldn’t be duplicated on the basketball court this summer.
Of course, that was before Bryant was lost for the season and we found out that Steve Nash's assortment of injuries weren’t just day-to-day bad but taking-two-epidurals-just-to-practice bad. Nevertheless, Bryant’s stance doesn’t change and neither does the Lakers’ goal heading into the playoffs.
After the Lakers clinched a playoff berth that Bryant promised would happen back when the Lakers were well below .500, he tweeted, “And to think some said we wouldn’t make it.. #keepcalm #believe #playoffs now #makehistory”
He later tweeted, “Playoff promise fulfilled #ontothenext”
It doesn’t make sense that the Lakers will be entering the playoffs, without Bryant and possibly without Nash, as confident as they’ve been all season. But that’s exactly the way the Lakers were feeling after their 99-95 overtime win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday to clinch the seventh seed and a first round match-up against the San Antonio Spurs which begins on Sunday.
They are finally moving the ball the way Mike D’Antoni envisioned they could. They are finally playing defense with the kind of intensity that Dwight Howard hoped they would. And they are playing inside-out and relying on their bigs as Pau Gasol and Howard have pleaded for since November.
"You always backed me," Bryant said with intense appreciation.
Bryant was winding down from what can only be described as an epic performance by the 17-year veteran -- a season-high 47 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 blocks and 3 steals with only 1 turnover, a statistical line never before recorded in the league, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
But World Peace and the rest of Bryant's teammates might not quite have his back the way he thinks they do.
After 79 games and with the Lakers on the edge of a playoff berth, holding a one-game lead over Utah for the No. 8 spot in the West with only three left to play, Bryant's teammates don't seem to be content to just feed the "All hail Kobe, the living legend" propaganda machine and ride his coattails into the playoffs.
If the season is worth saving at this point after all the trials and tribulations every player and coach in the locker room has gone through, it has to be saved as a team, the right way. If it's going to come down to Bryant playing hero ball from now until when the Lakers' season ends, there's a sense that Bryant's teammates would rather have an early summer if it means acting as the stage crew for Bryant's one-man show.
"It's bittersweet," Pau Gasol said when asked about Bryant's dominating performance against the Blazers, in which he played all 48 minutes in a non-overtime road game for the first time in his career. "Because, I think it's spectacular and it's very impressive and it's remarkable to be able to play 48 minutes and score 47 points. That's incredible. On the other hand, I'm a player that likes to see a little bit more ball movement and better balance. I've always been [like that]. That's just how I perceive this game.
"But again, he was incredible tonight. He scored a tremendous amount of points that I never scored in my life. So, like I said, it was very impressive and it's not something that you do every night, of course."
Gasol was quick to add context to his quotations, making it clear from his tone that this wasn't an issue of jealousy for the attention Bryant would receive for the feat, or a lack of appreciation for the talent Bryant has. And Gasol is certainly aware he might not be a Laker today and definitely would not be a Laker finally getting consistent post touches in Mike D'Antoni's system if it wasn't for Bryant supporting him.
All he's supposed to do is play defense, right?
Lock up the middle of the key, protect the rim, cover up his teammates' mistakes. Well, he did that Sunday. He has been doing that ever since he looked himself in the mirror over the All-Star break and realized he needed to start delivering at that end of the floor.
Howard did that Sunday. He protected the rim, he intimidated shots, he got back on defense instead of trying to crash the offensive boards.
It was his teammates who regressed on this day. The Lakers' transition defense was horrendous again. Their rotations were slow or ineffective. And the Clippers exploited every one of their failings again and again.
"He should get frustrated when other guys are not doing what they should be doing," Lakers forward Antawn Jamison told ESPNLosAngeles.com. "You can't have one guy defensively do his job and everybody else is not doing theirs. That's been our point of emphasis the last couple games. But we backtracked [Sunday] instead of continuing to concentrate on that.
"And it shouldn't be happening now, especially with where we're at."
Who is that on?
"All of us," Jamison said. "Everyone."
Howard has a different way of showing his anger than most people are used to. He doesn't believe in bashing his teammates publicly. Instead he'll either say very little, or say just enough to clue you in on where his head is.
Sunday afternoon he was about as terse and upset as he has been at any point this season.
His answers were one or two sentences. His expression was sullen.
"We just need to play the right way," he repeated at least five times. "We know what we have to do to win."
Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard is one of them.
"I broke my leg when I was 15," Howard said Friday morning. "It wasn't as severe as his, but I just know how I felt to sit out and miss important things, especially while you're young."
So Monday morning Howard picked up the phone and called Ware.
"I was just trying to make sure he was OK," said Howard, who still has two screws in his leg from the injury. "When I broke my leg, everybody thought that my career was done when I was 15. Look where it got me. I'm pretty sure it's going to push him to work even harder."
Howard said Steve Nash and Pau Gasol also got on the phone with Ware to offer encouragement.
Howard got his number through a mutual friend. The two were both raised in Atlanta and members of the same AAU basketball team, the Atlanta Celtics.
"Us Celtics stick together. That's the Atlanta Celtics," he said, catching the potential conflict with the Lakers hated rival. "We wear green, but that's for that team, the Atlanta Celtics."
Howard has been wearing a Posture Shirt for the last 11 games and hasn't missed any playing time because of the torn labrum in his right shoulder since putting it on.
"It’s been doing a pretty good job of keeping everything straight as far as my back and my shoulder, making sure that everything is inline," Howard said recently. "A lot of people think that it’s just a regular Polo T, but it’s not. It’s a shirt that was made strictly for posture and making sure the scapula and everything stay straight."
Howard aggravated his shoulder in the first quarter of the Lakers' 122-105 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday but was able to play the rest of the game as well as the next day against New Orleans in part because of the garment.
"Anybody who has had a torn labrum knows that it’s not something that you feel all the time," Howard said last week. "It’s not something that just bothers you while you’re walking or you’re working out. There’s moments where it feels really good and then once someone pulls you or hits you in the wrong position, that’s when sometimes everything in your arm goes numb. It just depends."
The Lakers had to receive permission from the league for Howard to wear the shirt as part of his uniform and it was approved because it is considered a medical device.
"We’ve had them in the locker room all year, but nobody is using them and I just started to wear it and actually felt a lot better," Howard said after shootaround Friday.
LOS ANGELES -- It was easy to summon the kind of emotion and passion that would have made their late, great owner Dr. Jerry Buss proud and get a win over the Boston Celtics on Wednesday.
It was easy to back up Kobe Bryant's playoff guarantee at shootaround on Friday.
But Friday night it was back to the reality of a season where nothing has come easy, as the Lakers needed all of Kobe Bryant's 40 points to eke out a close 111-107 win over the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center.
Bryant hit 15 of his 23 shots and all nine of his free throws to lead the Lakers to their second straight win. Dwight Howard added 19 points and 16 rebounds, even though he re-injured his right shoulder near the end of the first half.
J.J. Hickson and Nicolas Batum each had 22 points for Portland, which lost its seventh straight game.
How it happened: Once again the Lakers let a struggling young team gain confidence and shoot the lights out in the first half (51 percent).
But Bryant kept them in it with 18 points in the third quarter, and the Lakers finally pulled it out late in the fourth with several key defensive stands and four clutch free throws by Bryant over the final 12.9 seconds to preserve the win.
What it means: The Lakers have known for a while now they need to win about 70 percent of their remaining 27 games. There is very little room for error anymore. Games like this one -- against a Trail Blazer team they'd finally passed in the Western Conference standings -- are essentially must-wins if the Lakers have any hope of getting into the playoffs.
Hits: Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni revealed before Friday's game that Kobe Bryant has been dealing with a shoulder injury and said it may have been the cause of his 1-for-35 shooting on 3-pointers coming into the game.
Bryant might be in pain, but it didn't show in his performance Friday. He scored 29 of his game-high 40 points in the second half, keeping the Lakers in the game just when it seemed as if the Blazers might steal this one.
Misses: Steve Nash had a terrible shooting night, missing nine of his first 10 shots, and finishing with just four points on 2-for-11 shooting. He even missed a technical foul shot late in the fourth quarter. You know it's bad when Steve Nash is missing free throws.
Stat of the night: For once the Lakers got a lift from their second unit as Antawn Jamison (16) and Jodie Meeks (10) combined to outscore Portland's reserves, 26-14.
What's next: The Lakers head to Dallas for an early game on Sunday (10 a.m.), when Bryant can share his thoughts -- or respond as he sees fit on the court -- to Mavericks owner Mark Cuban after his comments Friday that the team should consider whether to amnesty the final year and $30 million on his contract.
HOUSTON -- Different All-Star city, same mixed messages from Dwight Howard regarding his future.
Howard confirmed Friday he has received assurances from Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak that he wouldn't be dealt by next week's trade deadline despite his unwillingness to commit to an extension or a new contract after the season.
Asked during Friday's All-Star media session if he'd be shocked if the Lakers traded him in the coming days, Howard said: "Well, they told me they weren't going to trade me. So, yeah, I would be surprised."
Howard spent much of his 30-minute session with reporters trying to deflect questions about his future. But ultimately, he said he wouldn't be pressured by anyone into making a decision about his future before the end of the season.
"The only thing that matters is the present, and right now," Howard said. "There's no need to talk about what's going to happen at the end of the season. No reason to go back and forth about it. I just feel like at the end of the year, I should have my opportunity to make my own decision. I shouldn't be criticized for waiting for the end of the year."
Without some kind of indication from Howard, the Lakers could risk losing the league's best center in free agency this summer without getting key assets in return. Orlando faced the same dilemma this time last season, but ultimately got Howard to waive an early termination contract clause that would have allowed him to enter free agency last summer.