Let that marinate for a bit and then digest this: Even if he leaves as a free agent, it is still better than trading him for what is currently being rumored. Yes, I honestly believe the Lakers would be better getting nothing than being straddled with the contracts of lesser players past Kobe Bryant's potential exit in 2014.
My rationale is simple and definite: As constructed, the Lakers are not a championship-caliber team. The idea that dealing Howard for a lesser center and wing players (think Atlanta's Kyle Korver) doesn't change the fact that LA's defense, effort and lack of depth leave them lacking against the best teams of the Western Conference. That is evidenced by their current 1-9 record against San Antonio, Oklahoma City, the Clippers and Memphis.
Howard has been as mercurial at times as he was in Orlando. There's no denying that. But there's also no denying that initially, he wasn't even expected to play until the beginning of 2013. With a torn shoulder and a back that leaves him at about 65-75 percent of his athletic capacity, Howard still leads the league in rebounding.
Ask yourself honestly: Are the Lakers really closer to doing anything in 2013 with Brook Lopez and whoever else the Brooklyn Nets would send? How about Al Horford, Anthony Morrow and Korver? I don't. As it stands now, those players might not even be enough to get Los Angeles to the playoffs this year. And for all the fears of Howard's back never recovering, who is to say that it doesn't with the proper rest and time it needs?
The flip side of this argument is that the Lakers simply can't allow Howard to leave without compensation. I'd understand that if this was Toronto or Milwaukee. But this is the Los Angeles Lakers. Even with the idiotic Jim Buss running the ship, it is still a viable destination.
But the realities of the luxury tax entail that the Lakers probably have to value good quantity as much as good quality. In other words, a Brook Lopez is not suddenly going to be the cure for what ills this team. Not in 2013, not in 2014. What the Lakers lack is athleticism and perimeter defense. For all the Kobe Bryant apologists, two blocks in an All-Star game don't cancel out the fact that he has been just as susceptible to getting burned as Steve Nash on the wings.
If Howard was 100 percent, then maybe some of these deficiencies could have been offset. But he is not and won't be for another 6-12 months. Bryant and Nash aren't going anywhere in all likelihood. That means you risk being even more porous defensively without the right defender. And I'm hard pressed to find many available that will be better than Howard. At least, not in a trade.
So, assuming his disenchantment with his role and Bryant's surliness pushes Howard out of Los Angeles, it does give the Lakers something they wouldn't have by giving him a maximum contract: Flexibility. At least for the 2014 season. This team needs to get quicker and better on the defensive end. Sadly, the only place for that to happen is on the bench. But at least that unit could possibly be addressed in the short-term before the huge free agent class of 2014 hits the market.
In other words, because this team is not going to win a title as they are constructed, it is paramount that the future be valued just as much as the present. Because the way I see it, dealing the best center in basketball for 70-80 cents on the dollar in return would be the rotten cherry on top of a terrible tasting sundae that has been the 2013 season.
The Lakers don't need any more change at this point, and Howard’s value, given his injuries and contract status, is not sufficient to bring a franchise-changer in exchange at the deadline. So let his value come off the books if he decides to bolt and give Bryant and Gasol a last hurrah before truly trying to move forward in 2014.
Because if they move Howard and become hamstrung with contracts, the Lakers risk being something even worse than being underachieving. T
hey risk being consistently average—something you just can't be in Hollywood.