Dwight Howard is at center of the Lakers’ issue

The words, spoken by a glowing superstar at the end of a giddy tournament, formed an outline of hope. Five months later, into this same blueprint a despairing team buries its head.

It was Kobe Bryant talking about Dwight Howard. It was the caretaker of basketball’s greatest franchise unofficially handing over the keys.

“Look, I’m going to play two, maybe three more years … then the team is his,” Bryant said at the end of the London Olympics. “I’m excited for the Laker franchise. Now they have a player who can carry the franchise well after I’m gone. It should be his. He should be willing to accept that challenge.”

Bryant said it, and Lakers fans believed it, their aging cornerstone once again being switched out for something even stronger, from one Hall of Famer to another, from West to Magic to Shaq to Kobe to the lovable man-child nicknamed D12, acquired from Orlando in a deal filled not only with Magic, but magic.

Then, slowly, painfully, like a nagging toothache that eventually makes you scream, a glorious Lakers summer became a turbulent Lakers autumn, then evolved into a humiliating Lakers winter, and today Bryant’s decrees about the league’s most invisible giant have evolved into a series of desperate questions.

Now they have a player who can carry the franchise well after I’m gone. Do they really?

It should be his. Can it?

He should be willing to accept the challenge. But what if he’s not?

Of the two biggest issues facing this dysfunctional mess of a professional sports operation, Howard’s failures are the more curious, and his future the more perplexing. Mike D’Antoni is the wrong coach, but they can find another coach. There’s only one fluid giant like Howard, and the decision they make here could affect the organization for years.

Do they trade him now while they can receive some warm bodies in return, or do they keep him and risk losing him for nothing this summer when he becomes a free agent? If he wants to stay here, do they re-sign him? If he doesn’t want to stay, should they even care? The ambiguities are compounded by the truth that, like anyone who has ever called himself Superman, Howard has been two completely different people.

The Lakers can’t live with him. They can’t live with his lack of dominance on defense, his passiveness on offense, his ability to laugh off missed throws, his inability to get tough with Bryant, and the nagging notion that his back problems may linger for the rest of his career.

The Lakers also can’t live without him. With Bryant possibly leaving the Lakers after next season, they need a star and, for as small as Howard has played this season, he still rocks the stat sheets like a star. He still leads the league with a dozen rebounds per game, he ranks among the leaders with nearly three blocks, and he’s averaging 16.7 points. And despite those who think he could be leaving this summer, there are about 28 million reasons why he would stay, which is the extra money the Lakers can pay him because he already plays here.

He’s great. He’s awful. He’s huge. He’s minuscule. He’s D12. He’s D-sastrous.

One night, he’s going for 31 and 16. The next night, he’s taking five shots in 30 minutes. Some nights he fills the lane and alters every shot. Other nights, you can watch an entire half without knowing he’s there.

He entertains the media before games in the locker room, but his teammates wonder about the seriousness of his preparation. He often plays with a childlike joy, but he plays on a team whose five-ringed leader has angrily instructed them to put on their big-boy pants.

The Lakers, who have less than a month until the Feb. 21 trade deadline to make a decision, could cut through this mess by going back to London and examining the torch that Bryant so elegantly placed in Howard’s hands. In the end, with the very core of the franchise at stake, nothing else matters but that torch.

Do they think Dwight Howard is strong enough, physically and mentally, to carry the Lakers brand for the next decade?

When the question is posed like that, the only possible answer is no. The one thing Howard has not consistently exuded here is strength. The giant Lakers market seems too big for him. The tough Lakers culture seems too intractable for him. The torch simply seems too hot for him.

If there has been a flame extinguished, it happened in a Memphis locker room this week when Bryant challenged his heir by wondering if Howard found it difficult to play with him. Howard reportedly didn’t stand up to Bryant, and seemed despondent afterward, and that’s no sign of a future Lakers leader.

Shaquille O’Neal won three rings by barking back at Bryant. Pau Gasol won two rings by standing up to Bryant. Metta World Peace accepted Bryant’s challenge and wound up saving him in the seventh game of the NBA Finals.

So far this season, every time the Lakers have needed their big man to stand up, his aura has dwindled, and even if he needs a full season to recover from back surgery, it will be impossible for him to get a personality transplant.

Dwight Howard is a great center, but so far he doesn’t seem suited to be a Lakers centerpiece. The Lakers must soon decide if he ever will.