Even before Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant went down in a heap Friday night, his season ending with the Achilles tendon pop heard 'round the basketball world, there was an expectation within the organization that Dwight Howard would eventually take over this team. While the center who will be a free agent this summer has continued his noncommittal stance about whether he will sign with the Lakers or head elsewhere, two people close to him said they fully expect him to return. The people spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity out of respect for Howard's decision to wait until the summer to make his final choice. In that silver lining sense for the Lakers and their distraught fans, their playoff push that has come down to the final days of the regular season may simply a preview of the years ahead. "It's almost like you're envisioning yourself three years from now, four years from now, what is that (like)? " Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni told USA TODAY Sports on Sunday regarding Howard now playing without Bryant. "Well the future is now. I think he's up to the challenge." But Howard is notorious for his indecisive ways, meaning there's always a chance his outlook could change by the time July rolls around. The Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and even the Phoenix Suns — who could make room for a maximum contract salary with a few minor roster moves — are hoping that's the case. And should Howard get lost in the Lakers' Bryant-less offense in these final two games and they fall short in the playoff push, it's safe to say that could cause him some concern in terms of how he sees Laker Land. The financial factor certainly comes into play, as Howard's maximum extension with the Lakers would be for five years and $117.9 million while all other teams only could give him a four-year, $87.8 million contract. The smart money, it seems, is on him staying.