The reality of losing D12 to free agency, however, could prove to be more painful simply because the Lakers would be left with just a few options to bring in new players. With one mini mid-level exception and the veteran's minimum option, the Lakers would probably see their hopes of winning a title in 2013-14 dashed before opening night in November.
Without Dwight Howard, the Lakers will have a much more difficult time convincing established veterans to come to Los Angeles. An injured and aging Kobe Bryant doesn't help that situation, though the Black Mamba insists he'll be back on the court before the end of the year.
July 1 is the date that Howard can negotiate with teams, including the Lakers. Right now, everyone is in hurry-up-and-wait mode. After July 1, expect an avalanche of activity on all fronts.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has been making a case for Howard to decide on his future as soon as possible. Signing him to a five-year contract for $118 million would certainly entice veteran free agents still looking for an NBA championship to take less and come play for the Lakers, like what Antawn Jamison did last season.
Kupchak said to reporter Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times in April:
I think he understands that the sooner he makes a decision, the better it is for everybody. I don't know if that means a week, a month or seven weeks. It allows us to plan and it allows him to start putting down roots in the city. People can no longer say, 'I wonder what he's going to do? Is he going to be gone?' We're hoping that he chooses to stay in Los Angeles.
Kupchak and Lakers executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss have to be discussing several doomsday plans and what direction to take if Howard leaves Los Angeles for Houston, Dallas, Golden State or Atlanta.
Pau Gasol, entering the last year of his contract ($19.3 million), would move to the center position with Jordan Hill as his backup. Trading Gasol, which remains a possibility were Howard to stay, would be shelved if Howard bolts.
Such a departure by D12 would make the decision on whether or not the team should use its amnesty clause all the more difficult.
The most logical candidate among Kobe Bryant, Gasol, Steve Blake and Metta World Peace is MWP. By dumping him, the Lakers would save his $7.7 million salary against the cap and close to $30 million in luxury taxes.
Kupchak and Buss must weigh improving the bottom line against keeping a player who, despite being slowed by age and injury, is still a strong defender who makes big defensive plays. The guess here is that MWP is sent packing in July.
It's beyond obvious to any fan of the Lakers that all the dominoes are lined up behind Dwight Howard and his big decision. As he goes, so go the Lakers.
In a conversation this week with Lakers reporter Mike Trudell (via NBA.com), Kupchak reiterated what he has been saying for several months—namely, that Lakers Nation sits on pins and needles, waiting for Howard to make a decision. And, he said that having several alternate plans in place is critical, because no one knows in which direction all of this will go.
If there's one thing we're looking at this summer, it's what Dwight is going to decide to do. That is the major moving piece. That will determine a lot about what we do. It's the one decision we will have to wait on. Then we will try to have a plan a, plan b, plan c depending on what happens. It moves quickly, so it's not like you can go to a plan b with certainty. There will be 29 other teams looking to improve their teams on July 1. But all of the "what if" scenarios will be talked about, reviewed and ready to go. We spend a lot of time on those what ifs, contingency plans. Every day brings more information in this league – coaches get signed up, and so on, which gives you more insight into what may happen in the summer. But when we get closer to the draft and July 1, it gets more juicy.
Whatever happens after July 1, this much is certain: The Los Angeles Lakers will not be doomed.
Even the great franchises suffer down years as they transition from one generation of players to the next. It's the natural evolution of the game, and Los Angeles plays it about as well as any team in the NBA.
If Dwight Howard leaves—and that is a 50/50 proposition at the moment—the Lakers will move around the pieces they have, make a couple of trades where they can and sign a few veterans who might improve the bench play for at least one season. They'll suffer in the short term.
Next year, the Lakers are positioned to be under the salary cap, with only Steve Nash ($9.7 million) on the books. Bryant will be a free agent and could be convinced to take less for a year or two if he envisions winning one more ring. Don't expect him to retire, unless his Achilles decides for him.
Having space to sign a top free agent in 2014—and there will be many good ones—may be incentive enough for Dwight Howard to remain in Los Angeles and see a title contender built around him. Who on this planet could not imagine what it would look like to have LeBron James and Dwight Howard paired together on the Lakers?
If, however, Howard reasons that playing under Mike D'Antoni and alongside an aging roster is not the best fit for him, then he will leave and the Lakers will look to the following year to retool. And, that may not be such a bad thing.
It's the nature of the beast. Howard's leaving would not doom a franchise that has 16 world championships and is one of the most iconic teams in any sport.
It would merely force the Lakers to make new choices and build another dynasty from the ground up.
And that would be Dwight Howard's loss, not the Lakers.
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