GM 'hopeful' Dwight Howard returns

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Lakers officially said goodbye to their disappointing 2012-13 season Tuesday, conducting their final round of exit interviews.

Now the key question of the offseason: Will Dwight Howard say goodbye to the Lakers?

Howard has yet to make his decision about whether he intends to re-sign when he becomes a free agent come July 1 or explore opportunities with other teams.

"I want to get away from everything and focus on me and making the decision for me, and that's not happening today," Howard said after meeting with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and coach Mike D'Antoni.

"I'm just going to get away, and I don't think that I should get pressured by anybody to make a decision because this decision is for myself and myself only, and making a decision like this, you don't want to make it off emotions. You don't want to make it off what other people are saying."

Kupchak, who has a more influential voice than most, said he was "hopeful" and "optimistic" the All-Star center will be back with the Lakers next season and beyond.

"I know in my heart that this is a place where I think he should be," Kupchak said. "We have a great legacy, great history of great players in this city dating back to when the franchise came here in 1960, and he certainly fits the mold."

The GM said he did not know when Howard would make his decision but added, "I think he understands: the sooner, the better for everybody."

Kobe Bryant echoed Kupchak's stance.

"It's just a matter of what he feels in his heart and what he wants to do," Bryant said of Howard. "He's reached a crossroads in his career, and I think L.A. is the perfect spot for him to assert himself and have his career take off."

Howard can sign a five-year, $118 million max-level extension to stay in L.A. come July 1. The most he could receive if he were to leave is a four-year deal worth $87.6 million. Howard is expected to entertain the free-agency process and hear competing offers, multiple sources with knowledge of Howard's thinking told ESPNLosAngeles.com. Dallas, Houston and Cleveland are teams that will be vying for Howard, among other suitors.

Bryant was asked whether he believed Howard would choose to stay in L.A.

"I would say so," Bryant said. "I would say he is. We all pride ourselves on being businessmen to a certain extent. I think from a business standpoint, it makes more sense, both contractually and also perception-wise. This is an incredible market. It's a great place. A lot of things go well for you when you win here."

But when you struggle just to make the playoffs with a $100 million payroll in a season in which championship No. 17 was expected to be added to the franchise's cupboard, it's a different story.

"When you win, it's amazing, and when you lose, it's terrible," Howard said of his first season playing in L.A. "Some days it's good, when I have a good game. Some days, it's not so good. But like Mitch says, he said it again today, it's the best place to be when you're winning. When you're losing, it's not so good. But, L.A., they love their Lakers."

In the short term, Howard will have the torn labrum in his right shoulder examined Wednesday to determine whether he will require surgery or not. Howard missed six games with the shoulder injury this season but missed only preseason action because of his back, which was surgically repaired last April.

"My back was pretty much in pain the whole year," Howard said. "I came back five to six months earlier than I was supposed to, and I did that for this team, I did that for this city because I wanted to win so bad. I pushed myself. Physically was I ready to come back? No. But mentally I felt I could do anything, and that's what I tried to do every night."

Kupchak said that when the Lakers traded for Howard in August, he didn't think they would get him on the court until January or February and was "shocked" when the 27-year-old big man was on the court for the first day of training camp.

"It takes a full year to recover from the injury that I had," Howard said. "I think because people saw that I came back, went through training camp and I didn't miss any games because of my back that I was totally healed and 100 percent, and I wasn't. But, I played through it. I could have sat out the whole year, but I wanted to play."

While Howard's decision is still up in the air, Kupchak offered another endorsement for Mike D'Antoni, reiterating his statement prior to the Lakers' regular-season finale that the coach would be back.

"We had to just sell out to whatever he wanted, whether we liked it or not," Howard said, not exactly a ringing endorsement for D'Antoni, but not a criticism, either. "We had to do what was going to benefit the team, and being one of the leaders on the team, I had to make sure I kept the guys in line to what the coach wanted us to do."

Kupchak did not seem worried about any potential rift between player and coach.

"I think Dwight likes winning, he likes performing at a high level," Kupchak said. "I think he's fine with Mike D'Antoni, but I'm not really concerned if players like a coach, so I don't ask that question. Our coaches are evaluated by wins and losses."

Howard's Twitter feed has been evaluated to try to get a sense for what way he is leaning regarding his future.

Howard said not to "read too much" into his tweet following Sunday's Game 4 loss to the San Antonio Spurs: "I hope I get the chance to make it up to you! Thank u la."

"For me, I'm going to do what's best for myself, what's going to make me happy," Howard said. "At the end of the day, I can't control who likes me and who dislikes me but I have the right to be happy. That's what I'm going to do. That's the biggest thing right there."

Part of being happy for Howard is being comfortable acting how he truly is.

"I'm going to be myself now," Howard said. "I think that's the way I should have been all year, not letting anybody change who I am as a person. If I want to smile and be a big kid, [I will] smile and be a big kid. There's nothing wrong with that. I think all of us have some kind of kid left inside of us and I'm not going to give that up."