BILL PLASCHKE

Lakers begin playoffs with a '1996' vibe, and that could be bad

It starts in the middle. This is Dwight Howard's chance to cement himself as the team leader and guarantee his status as the Lakers' future when he signs a new contract this summer.

But what if none of that happens? What if Howard's defensive intensity in the last two home games wilts under playoff pressure? What if the strain of leading a team into a nasty playoff environment without a strong coach and with a mismatched supporting cast becomes too much?

As of today, there seems to be no question that Howard will return as a Laker, but what if a four-game blowout suddenly makes him wonder whether the rebuilding here is worth it?

Then there is the coach. This is Mike D'Antoni's chance to validate the strangely strong support offered by General Manager Mitch Kupchak. This is when a coach known for postseason failures can change that perception.

But what if none of that happens? What if his loose control becomes postseason chaos and, somewhere during the middle of this series, the Lakers decide they just don't want to play for him anymore? It happened to Mike Brown in Oklahoma City last year, it could happen here, and then what does Kupchak do?

Here's guessing Kupchak's recent public vote of confidence will last only as long as Howard agrees with it or the playoff results support it. In other words, the polling is not yet complete.

Then there is the final, far different, yet far more important question: What if everything happens?

What if the Lakers' defensive intensity and offensive freedom carry them past San Antonio, past an easier second-round opponent, and on to the conference finals or even beyond? As crazy as it sounds, what if they show management that this can be a championship team without Bryant?

The word "amnesty" has already been used in the same sentence as "Kobe," even by Kobe himself on his Twitter feed. If the Lakers can move forward with Howard and Pau Gasol, would the same ownership that once traded Shaq decide it could live without the final year of Kobe?

It will never happen. It should never happen. Even if these Lakers improbably win as many as two playoff series, or even more, there is no way they are giving up on a player who has won five championships and should retire a Laker. But the question might be raised, and if it is, Kupchak may need a brief escape.

Lake Havasu comes to mind.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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