Bryant might be recruiting Howard

Saturday , January 21, 2012 - 5:01 PM

Bill Plaschke

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The club official had ended the group interview, but I walked alongside Dwight Howard as he left the Orlando Magic locker room late Friday night and introduced myself as a reporter from Los Angeles.

He stopped. He suddenly had time for one more question.

"How does it feel to know that folks in my town are hoping they can watch you do this every night?" I said.

"I understand," he said, smiling down, his eyes twinkling through his horn-rimmed glasses. "And I'm really pleased to meet you."

Thus ended a glorious open house for basketball's most valuable -- and available -- property, Howard purposely stopping to chat with a guy from Los Angeles after spending three hours dominating a bunch of other guys from Los Angeles.

Lakers, have you seen enough? Jim Buss, do you finally understand?

After Friday night's 92-80 loss to the Magic, if the Lakers still don't feel that trading for Dwight Howard would be a good deal, they deserve to be blocked into the third row.

You don't think this guy could help salvage the Lakers' season and set the course for their future?

Flying up and down the Amway Center floor Friday, he scored 21 points, grabbed 23 rebounds, blocked a shot, stole a pass, played all but 2 1/2 minutes, and his coach only shrugged.

"These are the kind of things he's been doing night in and night out," Stan Van Gundy said. "We're sort of used to this by now."

You don't think this guy is in a different league than Andrew Bynum?

Howard outscored Bynum by 11, outrebounded him by 11, and stayed on the court nearly for nearly 20 more minutes because of Bynum's awkward foul trouble.

"There are a lot of ways you can compare him with Andrew but ... Dwight is there all the time, and good all the time," Van Gundy said.

Earlier this week on his quickly imploding TNT gig, Shaquille O'Neal pronounced Bynum the best big man in the league. Howard was so much better Friday night that afterward, even his most notable teammate couldn't defend him.

When asked about O'Neal's comment, Kobe Bryant did everything but roll his eyes in saying, "You know Shaq, right?"

And now Los Angeles knows even more about Howard, who set sweaty picks and made smart passes and set his teammates up to make a dozen three-pointers while more than doubling the Lakers in fastbreak points.

"He demanded it, and he dominated it," teammate Jason Richardson said.

He also has been demanding about something else in the last few months, saying that he doesn't plan on re-signing with the Magic when his contract expires after this season. This means the Magic would need to deal him by the March 15 trade deadline or risk having him walk away for nothing, much like O'Neal deserted this town 16 years ago.

Howard reportedly has told the Magic he will sign long-term deals with only the Lakers, Dallas Mavericks or New Jersey Nets. But only the Lakers could send them a young talent like Bynum, and perhaps even a veteran talent like Pau Gasol.

And no team has a bigger star who is probably recruiting him, as Howard confirmed that he has spoken to Bryant.

"We've only talked about getting better ... You've seen those commercials about the Kobe System, right?" Howard said. "It's a good system, I like it."

Bryant denied they have spoken at all, which means somebody is trying to hide something, which could mean they were talking about more than the Kobe System.

After most of the Magic had left the building late Friday, Howard was still sitting wearily in front of his locker.

He had just averaged more than 40 minutes in four games in the last five nights, leading the Magic to three wins during that time.

Van Gundy is right, he's always there, but I had to ask him, did he think he would still be here after the trading deadline?

Howard shook his head and sighed.

"Right now, I'm in Orlando, and that's all that matters," he said, adding, "I'll cross that bridge when it's time, but right now, I'm with the Magic."

I wondered whether he had just put on a show for the sake of showing up Bynum. He shook his head again.

"Tonight's game wasn't about Andrew Bynum and Dwight Howard, it was about the Magic and Lakers," he said. "There's no need to go back and forth about me and him. We're two different players who play the game in different ways."

I have seen Howard's way, and it's a way that could turn a contender into a champion, a perfect fit for this terribly imperfect team.

Lakers, have you seen enough? Jim Buss, do you finally understand?

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