Lakers in limbo while awaiting free agent Dwight Howard's decision

A.C. Green left the Lakers for Phoenix exactly 20 years ago this summer, perhaps the only important player they ever lost to free agency.

It so irritated Jerry Buss that he appealed to his players a few months later at training camp with an impassioned "Beat the Suns!" It was one of the few times that Buss, the longtime Lakers owner who died this year, ever addressed the team that way.

The Lakers have another free-agent courting on their hands, but instead of chasing a one-time All-Star like Green, they're trying to impress seven-timer Dwight Howard.

The franchise has stopped in time. There's a sense of uncertainty, if not uneasiness, in the halls of the front office. Will a big-name free agent really turn his back on the 16-time NBA champions?

If it feels like the Lakers went through this recently, they did, somewhat, in 2004, while Kobe Bryant debated whether to ditch the only team he knew and join the Clippers.

"When the phone call came in, we really didn't know which way it was going to go," Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said Thursday, calling the Howard situation "very similar" and "scary close" to what he experienced with Bryant nine years ago.

Bryant chose the Lakers after an 11th-hour phone call from Buss.

Howard will visit with representatives from Houston, Dallas and Atlanta before meeting with the Lakers, the team has been told.

Kupchak remains optimistic. He's been through this already. It ended well enough with Bryant. He's hoping for the same with Howard.

"There was a period there where Kobe was earning his stripes in Los Angeles and I think when he came back, he had to continue," Kupchak said. "Here it is, seven, eight, nine years later and I think that's what would happen with Dwight once he put his roots down and said, 'This is the place that I want to be.'

"I think the city feels to some degree that they were renting him for a year. But the reality is he couldn't sign an extension financially and the rules provide that he wait until July 1 to get the best deal he can possibly get. And of course the way the season went didn't help things, either."

The Lakers were swept in the first round of the playoffs by San Antonio and Howard was ejected in the finale, as if fans needed a reminder.

Howard's agent, Dan Fegan, has met regularly with Kupchak since the season ended abruptly in April, during which time Kupchak has repeated the Lakers' desire to re-sign Howard.

Almost every Lakers fan knows Howard can sign a five-year, $118-million contract with the team as opposed to a four-year, $88-million deal with someone else.

Still, the Lakers took the aggressive, and unusual, step of placing pro-Howard billboards in several areas around Los Angeles, including Hollywood Boulevard and on the side of Staples Center.

The message is clear, written in all capitals: "STAY." An action shot of Howard is included on each board.

The billboards also directed fans to Twitter via the hashtag "StayD12," but the Internet reception was mixed.

"Stop beggin Dwight Howard to stay," wrote @Gj824.

Another fan, @7FindingForever, wondered "When the hell did Los Angeles turn into Orlando?"

But Lakers fan @_georgiiie implored Howard to "please stay in L.A.!!"