The NBA playoffs are drudging on, but the Los Angeles Lakers are absent for good reason. The San Antonio Spurs sent LA on its way with four surgical victories over the Purple and Gold in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
The instant offseason hit like a smack in the face, but it was the all-important first step to begin a new chapter rife with important decisions.
I have two plans for a fast-paced Lakers rebuild. Follow my road map and determine for yourself which course you’d rather have the Lakers pursue.
Priority No. 1: The Future of Dwight Howard
Lakers owner Jim Buss is at a legacy-defining juncture in his career as patriarch of the Lakers franchise. His front-office teammate GM Mitch Kupchak will have a strong voice in selecting the path for the Lakers’ immediate future.
The first and most crucial item on their itinerary is to get a concrete answer from Dwight Howard about his future plans. If you smirked at the idea of the 27-year-old Howard rushing to decision day, I don’t blame you for a second.
Still, the Lakers do not even need a positive response from D12 at this point in order to fulfill their future needs. All Buss and Kupchak need is any type of response so that they can continue to the next phase of their offseason execution.
Here’s how it shakes down:
Path A: Sign Dwight Howard to a contract extension
If the Lakers can convince the hesitant big man to stay in Los Angeles, it will set into action a reactionary course of personnel decisions with Dwight as the centerpiece.
Despite a slow season (worsened by completely unmet expectations), Lakers management should still be confident that signing Howard is the best course of action. The big man averaged 17.1 points and 12.4 rebounds per game throughout 2012-13 without ever appearing fully healthy.
The Lakers can offer Dwight a five-year max contract that would net D12 a cool $117 million. Other teams can only offer Howard four years.
Path B: Embrace the idea of 2014 NBA Free Agency
Say Dwight decides to pick up his baggage and take it to another city. No matter! This would initiate a sequence of reactionary moves to stay relevant for the upcoming season.
The next logical step would be to commit to keeping Pau Gasol through the remainder of his contract. Although $19 million is a hefty sum in the books, showing faith in the Spaniard during his last year on contract is necessary if the Lakers hope to remain relevant in 2013-14.
All the while, the Lakers would have to start readying for the fruitful free-agent class of 2014. Ever picture LeBron James in a Lakers uniform? If Dwight walks, the idea doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
My Recommendation: Path B
Mr. Kupchak will surely be disappointed if the player he’s already committed rafter space to bolts after one forgettable season. I assure you, he’ll soon recover.
Sticking with Pau as the starting center is a scenario preferable for most teams around the NBA. Gasol has the skills to be an impactful big man and has a proven rapport with Kobe Bryant.
Assuming a healthy eventual return for the Black Mamba, the relationship between the two veterans will buoy the Lakers during the in-between year ahead.
And, even if the Lakers can’t convince King James to walk down the red carpets in Hollywood, 2014 has other prizes to offer in the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Having salary cap space in 12 months will be a huge luxury.
Priority No. 2: Re-evaluate the coaching staff
Very similar to his treatment of Dwight Howard, Mitch Kupchak has perpetually reiterated his confidence in the coaching capabilities of Mike D’Antoni.
D’Antoni led the Lakers to a 40-32 record in his time at the helm. The team didn’t gain any sort of momentum until just before it was too late, squeaking into the playoffs by winning its last five games.
Path A: Let Coach D try again
Did D’Antoni get too small of a sample size under too strained of conditions?
Path B: Fire D’Antoni and enter the market for a new head coach
Two firings in one season seems like a bit much, even for a team with as little patience for failure as the Lakers.
My Recommendation: Path A
The only reason I believe D’Antoni deserves to stay is that I’m convinced that even the great (and snubbed) Phil Jackson could not have led the Lakers out of the mess they were in this season.
Admittedly, D’Antoni’s system is not a good match for the sluggish Gasol. If Dwight walks (as I’ve suggested wouldn’t hurt the Lakers) and Pau remains as one of the key offensive cogs, L.A. may elect to go in a different direction.
Unlike Dwight, D’Antoni is already under contract for two more years (earning another $8 million). His future is completely under the control of the Lakers’ front office and is the second priority in selecting a definitive future direction.
Priority No. 3: Revamp the guard position
After averaging close to 39 minutes per contest, Kobe’s Achilles injury was only half-surprising.
Bryant has been the Lakers’ guard of a generation, revolutionizing his position by continually adding aspects to his offensive game. In 17 NBA seasons, the Black Mamba has developed a well-rounded offensive game that the legends he looked up to would be proud of.
But the Mamba cannot be forced to carry such a heavy load anymore. The dude is going to turn 35 at the end of the summer. And quite frankly, a bevy of mediocre sidekicks will no longer get it done.
Taking a quick look at the Lakers’ salary situation shows that the team owes guaranteed money to Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Chris Duhon and Jodie Meeks in the upcoming season. Nash’s value plummeted all year long, and the other three do not promise to be integral parts of the Lakers’ future.
Path A: Make minor acquisitions in free agency
I don’t believe that Meeks or Duhon deserve any more time in Lakers uniforms. Whether or not Los Angeles could get any return value for either at this point is barely of importance.
If the Lakers can absolve themselves of those two contracts, they could afford a shot at signing an impact guard in free agency this year to supplement the efforts of a woeful bench. My most suitable candidate for a journey west is Nate Robinson.
Path B: Ride it out
2013-14 may already be lost because a man named LeBron James is in his prime. The Lakers owe a total of around $20 million to the four guards for the upcoming season, which isn’t ideal but will quickly be cleared up after one more season.
In just 12 months' time, the Lakers only have money guaranteed to Steve Nash (those $9 million are looking like a really shaky investment at the moment). At that point, if the Lakers have chosen my cap-freeing course, they will be able to pursue multiple youthful superstars both in free agency and perhaps a richly stocked 2014 draft class.
My Recommendation: Path A
Watching Kobe Bryant get overworked into injury was just unnecessary. With the personnel under contract, the Lakers do not currently have the positional depth they need to support the exploits of their star guard.
Restructuring the makeup of the Lakers guards is next on the list of importance, and there is no reason it can’t improve this year before a definite makeover in 2014.
Also, Nate would thrive in L.A. Just sayin’.
Priority No. 4: Rebounding Depth
Dwight Howard’s decision will be the largest predictor of the Lakers' sense of urgency to bolster a significant lack of rebounding depth. Without Howard’s 12.4 per game, the Lakers will need to find multiple new sources of glass-cleaning service.
The gist is that without Howard, the Lakers would need immediate help. That could come in the form of a free-agent signing like DeJuan Blair.
Adding Jordan Hill back into the mix surely won’t hurt the Lakers, as he’s able to provide the team with energy and size off the bench. Could he be a major contributor in increased minutes?
Only Option: Grind it out
If the Lakers end up failing to ink Howard, they will likely be wary of committing major money to any free agent this offseason.
With D12 in the mix, the Lakers could be one of the best rebounding teams in the NBA, but he’ll need help. Unfortunately, the market this year is a bit thin.
In any case, fixing this specific deficit falls just a bit too low on the priority list to register as an immediate necessity. The Lakers will be patient and grind through a full season in anticipation of 2014.