Once practice ended, two scenarios played out that show how the Lakers have tried to adapt without Kobe Bryant leading them.

While the Lakers' star had surgery to treat a torn left Achilles tendon at a nearby hospital Saturday afternoon, Dwight Howard gathered his teammates together and expressed confidence they could still win an NBA championship.

In what marked the Lakers' last regular-season practice Tuesday, Howard tried keeping the mood light by shooting left-handed half-court shots and later joking to his teammates, "I'll pay ya'll next season."

Whether that's a sure sign Howard will definitely re-sign with the Lakers once he becomes an unrestricted free agent this offseason remains a different story. With the Lakers (44-37) playing tonight against the Houston Rockets (45-36) at Staples Center to determine whether they will make the playoffs, Howard considered the possibility of the team's season finale his last game "a trick question."

But he hardly shied away from calling himself "the leader of the team" with Bryant remaining sidelined for at least the next six to nine months. Howard has one trusty ally in ensuring that his increased role goes smoothly.

Pau Gasol. "He's been trying to be a vocal leader throughout the year," Gasol said of Howard. "He feels some ownership on this team and that's something you have to respect. The franchise wants him here long-term. That's why he feels that way. "Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak called Howard "our main guy" and Gasol "one of our best players." But Gasol's future appears unclear for different reasons.