After a disappointing 2012-13 campaign, the Los Angeles Lakers have some soul searching to do this summer.
Sweeping changes are probably unrealistic, but there are definitely some important decisions to be made during the offseason.
Given that the Lakers don't own any picks in the upcoming draft, the first real decisions will be made in free agency.
Los Angeles is well over the luxury tax line. There is no way the Lakers can sign any impact free agents unless the organization can convince them to sign for the veteran's minimum to chase a ring (Not inconceivable, but that exact scenario didn't quite work out last year for Antawn Jamison).
What the Lakers are really faced with is the option to bring back their own players who are hitting the market this summer. Let's take a look at the players they can and can't afford to lose in the offseason.
CAN Afford to Lose...
As previously mentioned, Jamison signed for the veteran's minimum last season in an ill-fated grasp for a championship.
Jamison was a useful player for the Lakers on the offensive end, serving primarily as the stretch-four in Mike D'Antoni's spread attack. His three-point accuracy was above his career mark and he posted the second-highest true shooting percentage of his career.
Defensively, however, Jamison was little more than a lamppost, standing still and allowing opponents to light him up.
The Lakers gave up more points per possession with Jamison on the court as opposed to on the bench, and his personal defensive rating of 108 was abysmal, right in line with his career norm.
Jamison turns 37 years old in June. There's certainly no upside with him. If he agrees to another minimum deal and can replicate what he did this year (far from guaranteed) it's a bargain for the Lakers, but there's no risk to letting him walk.
If need be, the Lakers can find similar production elsewhere for about the same price. Guys like Anthony Tolliver, Andray Blatche and Chris Wilcox all made the veteran's minimum in 2013, and they will all be available as free agents this summer.
About 10 weeks ago it appeared that Earl Clark had driven his stock up so high that it would be impossible for the Lakers to retain him after he hit the open market in July.
Now it feels like L.A. can offer him even less than what he made last season and still have no other team compete for his services.
That's the kind of finish Clark limped to at the end of 2013. He was like a ghost on the court, present yet invisible.
Over the last nine games of the season, including the playoffs, Clark averaged a paltry 2.8 points and 2.2 rebounds in about 21 minutes per contest.
Clark did show flashes of strong play that would suggest the capacity to be a valuable role player off the bench, but the fact that he disappeared when the Lakers needed him most (and literally had no one else to play) is deeply troubling.
Since the Lakers have no cash to play around with, keeping Clark at a cheap number is a viable option, but as in the case of Jamison, losing Clark is no big deal either.
Pending free agents who made less money than Clark in 2013 include former Laker Matt Barnes, Chase Budinger and Brandan Wright.
CANNOT Afford to Lose...
There are way too many fans and pundits out there right now suggesting that the Lakers should eschew re-signing Howard to the max deal he is bound to get this summer.
It can't be stressed enough: Howard is the Lakers' future.
He's the bridge between the Kobe Bryant Era and whatever comes next. Heck, maybe in 10 years it will even be known as the Dwight Howard Era.
Let's not forget that Howard is just two years removed from being the second-best player in basketball, and at 27 years old is just entering his prime.
Howard didn't get enough credit for coming back from back surgery and then fighting through repeated shoulder issues all season long, missing just six games and finishing the year as the only player in the NBA to average 17 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks per game.
Despite having his worst season since turning 21, Howard led the league in rebounding, was second in field-goal percentage and fifth in blocks.
And we haven't even gotten to the heart of his value yet—the impact his mere presence makes on defense.
With Howard on the court, the Lakers allowed 101.7 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. When he was off the court, L.A. hemorrhaged points at a rate of 107.8 per 100 possessions. That was roughly the difference between Atlanta's 10th-ranked defense and New Orleans' 28th-ranked defense.
Just the sight of Howard patrolling the paint is enough to make opposing players queasy when attempting shots near the basket. And to the degree to which the Lakers' perimeter defenders allow their marks to saunter past them on the way to the rim, Howard is invaluable as the last line of defense.
Howard's defensive influence is so widely acknowledged that Grantland.com's Kirk Goldsberry named his recent paper about interior defense analytics "The Dwight Effect" in homage to its namesake.
If Tyson Chandler is unquestionably worth his $14 million price tag, how could you argue that paying Howard—a younger, souped-up version of Chandler—$20 million is unpalatable?
When Howard was on the court for the Lakers, they outscored their opponents by 4.5 points per 100 possessions. That was more than a full point better than the on court/off court differential that Kobe Bryant posted.
In 2014, Howard will be another year removed from his back injury and the offseason will give him ample time to rehab his shoulder as well. He will only get better moving forward.
And if worst comes to worst, Howard will be L.A.'s best asset and trade chip for the next handful of years.
The bottom line is, you absolutely cannot allow Dwight Howard to walk away for nothing this summer.
That's why re-signing D-12 will be the No. 1 priority for the Lakers this offseason.
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