By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Even after every disappointment in the Los Angeles Lakers’ lost season, Kobe Bryant still wants to keep their roster together.
Pau Gasol agrees, although he knows he might be out.
And Dwight Howard is in no hurry to decide whether he’ll rejoin this talent-loaded group that didn’t meet its expectations.
Howard’s impending free agency was prominent in the Lakers’ minds as they headed into the offseason Tuesday with their exit interviews. General manager Mitch Kupchak said he’s “hopeful” and “optimistic” Howard will re-sign with Los Angeles after his first season ended in a first-round sweep.
But Howard, the seven-time All-Star center, wrapped up his first season in Los Angeles by vowing to make his decision in his own best interests, giving no indication he favored the Lakers over any other team.
“I’m going to take my time, get away from the game, get away from my phones and everything, just clear my head,” Howard said. “I think I deserve that right, so that’s what I want to do. … I do what’s going to be best for myself, what’s going to make me happy. At the end of the day, I can’t control who likes me, who dislikes me, but I have the right to be happy. That’s what I’m going to do.”
Howard was ambivalent about his first season on the West Coast, although he expressed love for Los Angeles when pressed. Howard said he returned from offseason back surgery several months earlier than expected because he wanted to win with Bryant and the Lakers, only to watch their season dissolve with an early-season coaching change and major injuries to almost every player in their rotation.
Howard isn’t saying where he wants to play, but the Lakers will court him aggressively and confidently.
“I know in my heart that this is the place where I think he should be,” Kupchak said. “We have a great legacy, a great history of great players in this city dating back to when the franchise came here in 1960, and he certainly fits the mold. But I don’t want to get ahead of the game and take anything for granted. … He’s earned the right to make an informed and calm decision.”
Howard could re-sign with the Lakers for five years and $118 million, or sign with another team for four years and $88 million. Bryant joked he’ll invite the boyish big man to his home in Orange County to watch cartoons.
“He’s at a crossroads in his career,” Bryant said. “I think Los Angeles is the perfect spot for him to assert himself and put his foot down and have his career really take off and be what it should be. There’s no greater place for a center to play than Los Angeles.”
The Lakers have several other decisions to make this summer, but coach Mike D’Antoni’s future still looks secure. Kupchak gave another vote of confidence to his first-year coach, saying “nothing has changed” from his declaration two weeks earlier that D’Antoni is expected to return in the fall.
If he’s in charge in autumn, D’Antoni thinks the Lakers will play much the same style in which they finished the regular season, assuming the same players return. The Lakers improved significantly late in the season during their 28-12 run to the playoffs, with Gasol and Howard finding remarkable chemistry at times.
Gasol’s fate is unsettled because of his $19 million-plus salary for next season and the Lakers’ luxury-tax situation. Bryant’s recovery from his torn Achilles tendon also weighs heavily on what’s sure to be a busy offseason after the franchise’s championship dreams ended in the first round.
Yet another offseason of uncertainty “can be a little draining” for Gasol, he said.
“It’s not ideal, but I accept the circumstances,” he added. “The future is uncertain, there’s no doubt about it. There’s a possibility I could be gone, a possibility I could stay. I don’t know the percentages. … It will be difficult if that was my last game, just because of the way I feel about the team, the city and my time here.”
Bryant isn’t ready to end his five-year partnership with the Spanish 7-footer, and he still believes the Lakers’ star-studded roster can be a title contender with a year of good health and togetherness. Bryant doesn’t see why Los Angeles wouldn’t try to keep every bit of the talent it assembled last year, now that the players have spent a year of trial and error learning to play together.
“I was pretty clear: I want Pau here,” Bryant said. “It’s not even a question. It’s not even a discussion. I think he gives us the best chance to win a title. You bring Dwight back, and we’re off and running, but you also have to look at how well they started playing together. That puzzle finally got solved. We were all just clicking and rolling. Unfortunately, circumstances beyond our control put a wet blanket on it.”
Bryant also scoffed at the idea D’Antoni or anybody should have stopped him from playing heavy minutes down the stretch to his season-ending injury, noting he was only following the example of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan by checking himself in and out of games — and he did it when Phil Jackson coached the Lakers, too.
“You think Mike is really going to tell me when to go in and out of the game?” Bryant asked with a smirk. “You really can’t ride Mike too hard about this.”
Bryant said the Lakers must improve their “length, speed and athleticism,” but sees few additional weaknesses. Los Angeles must decide how much it can add while preserving the majority of the 2014 cap space, with Steve Nash the only current player with a deal past next summer.
Bryant had speculated he would probably retire after next season when his contract ends along with Gasol’s deal, but he’s no longer even leaning that way.
“I don’t know,” the fourth-leading scorer in NBA history said. “This season kind of threw me a curveball.”