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Doubting Dwight Howard

This week, lyrics and quotes from Bob Marley dominated the Twitterverse in acknowledgement of what would have been the Jamaican icon's 68th birthday.

Among my favorites was this gem: "The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for."

I'm not sure whether Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak is a Marley fan, but he should think about that quote as he evaluates the players on his broken team -- especially Dwight Howard.

Look, I don't know whether this Lakers squad will make the playoffs.

True, it looks bad now -- nearing the All-Star break, they're 10th in a very tough Western Conference -- but teams get hot and cold in sports all the time.

This past May, Serena Williams lost in the first round of the French Open to the 111th-ranked player in the world, then went on to have one of the greatest seasons in tennis history. The 2007 Colorado Rockies were 39-42 at the end of June; they won 20 of 28 games in September and, by the end of October, were in the World Series. At one point in 2005, the Pittsburgh Steelers were 7-5. But then they didn't lose another game, including the Super Bowl.

Sports happen.

But Kupchak's main concern shouldn't be whether he can salvage this season as much as deciding whether Howard is worth suffering for going forward.

We know Kobe claims he "didn't take a run at him" when, before the Lakers getting a 116-95 beatdown by the Celtics, he told Jackie MacMullan "We don't have time for [Howard's shoulder] to heal. We need some urgency."

But we also know that when you string together that quote with Kobe's criticism that Howard cares too much what other people think and that he goofs off too much, what you really have isn't a clash in personalities but rather the best player on your team saying the Lakers' potential five-year, $118 million man is soft.

Of course, Kobe knocking his teammates is nothing new.

Kobe thought Shaq was fat and lazy.

He thought Andrew Bynum was apathetic.

He thought Smush Parker sucked.

But his complicated relationship with Howard is different because those other guys were not thought of as the heir to Kobe's throne.

I've criticized Howard as a leader in the past but still thought he was a franchise player. Now -- from a financial perspective -- I'm not so sure.

You can bring in a veteran or two to be a leader in the locker room and that won't cripple a team's ability to have big-ticketed talent -- think Jason Kidd in New York. But if a large chunk of the salary cap is being sucked up by a guy who is not resolved enough to elevate a franchise, there's not much a "locker room guy" can do.

As the Marley quote suggests, everyone is going to bring some bad with the good. Kobe's an egomaniac with a sharp tongue who once called for Kupchak's firing. But the Lakers GM dealt with that headache because he knew Bryant's good outweighed his bad.

And he couldn't get fair trade value anyway.

So the question is, as Kobe approaches retirement, should the team spend that much money on a guy who is talented but might not have the kind of personality needed to consistently impose his will?

Who might not play through pain?

Who could be soft?

The reason coach Mike D'Antoni reiterated to the media that Howard's "always been cleared" to play after the loss to the Celtics is because (1) he wants fans to know he's Team Kobe and (2) he wants to remind management that, when the team was fighting for survival, Howard took himself out of the fight.

At the beginning of the season, people wondered whether Kobe would run Dwight out of town.
But if the locker room thinks Howard is soft, maybe the prudent thing to do is let him go because he hasn't run off on his own. He might be the free agent with the biggest name in 2013, but he's not the only quality free agent out there -- Chris Paul and Al Jefferson come to mind. In fact, in the long run, it might be smarter to sign players with a lesser name but more heart -- like a Paul Millsap or Josh Smith -- than to hitch the wagon to a guy the current franchise player (and maybe the current coach) thinks is soft.

I know letting Howard walk -- or executing a sign-and-trade -- might seem like sacrilege, but I encourage Laker Nation to look back to the summer of LeBron in 2010.

When the dust settled, the highest-paid player turned out to be Joe Johnson at six years, $124 million. He's a good scorer but not someone who could carry a team to a championship. But Atlanta was scared to lose him, so it overpaid him. Of course, the Hawks realized their error and traded him to Brooklyn this offseason. They averaged 96.6 points in the 2011-12 season with Johnson and are averaging 96.5 now without him. Nothing says "overpaid" like a squad barely missing its $20 million scorer.

A couple of years ago, the thought of Dwight Howard being overpaid was inconceivable. But over the past two seasons, we've seen elements of Howard's personality that should give anyone signing a big fat check pause.

Significant pause.

The Lakers have to suffer a bit -- bad offensive nights, petulant attitude at times -- with Kobe, but he's been worth it because he's a proven winner with a warrior's heart. Is a talented player with a soft heart worth the risk of suffering multiple expensive down seasons?

To me, that question is far more pressing for Kupchak because, when Kobe does leave, he's taking his heart with him.