The Lakers aren't saving any of their cards for the negotiating table. They're not even waiting for a table to negotiate from, rather orchestrating their sales pitches in full view of the public.
It's getting harder for Howard to go anywhere in L.A. without being reminded of just how badly this city wants to keep its adopted son. If he's strolling Hollywood Boulevard, a quick glance at the sky is all that's needed:
If he drives down Figueroa Street and looks over at his former place of employment, he'll see another attempt to make it his permanent home, or at least his workplace for the next five years:
Seems a bit much for a player handed a death sentence by the court of public opinion after a disastrous debut season that he himself dubbed a "nightmare," no?
Well, no, actually. Not in the least. Hindsight says that the Lakers gave up next to nothing to acquire the All-Star big man, even when scaled down to a one-year rental grading system.
If Howard's season was indeed a nightmare, then what are we supposed to call former Laker Andrew Bynum's first "season" with the Philadelphia 76ers? A franchise-killing acquisition plagued by a degenerative knee condition presumably made worse by a bowling trip gone horribly wrong?
Seems a bit wordy to me, so why not simply a disaster of epic proportions?
But enough about what Bynum is or isn't less than 12 months removed from that blockbuster four-team trade. At the time of the deal he was a budding superstar and the potential future of the franchise. A breakout season in 2011-12 saw him post career highs in scoring (18.7 points per game) and rebounding (11.8).
With a nine-figure payroll and no developing talent rising through the ranks, the Lakers opted to stake their future on the 6'11", 265-pound athletic specimen. L.A. figured it would put forth its best sales pitch on the hardwood, what with three potential Hall of Famers in the same starting lineup (four if you're buying Pau Gasol's credentials).
Obviously that compelling argument never came. If anything, L.A.'s 2012-13 campaign seemed to push its star acquisition right out the door.
So now, according to ESPN's Marc Stein, the Lakers find themselves reportedly trailing in this free-agent race that should have been over before it ever got started.
That's why the Howard billboards are now taking over the L.A. streets like the next batch of wannabe actors. It's why Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak took such an unabashed approach in his Howard praise during a "State of the Lakers" chat on NBA.com:
Dwight is in the category of the great of the great. He's over his back injury and there's no reason he can't play seven, eight more years at that position. There's no doubt in my mind if he does, he's in the Hall of Fame. Those players are just hard to come by.
And Kupchak's absolutely right for doing so. His most resounding three words about Howard in that chat weren't any kind of marketing maneuver—they were a statement of fact: "He's our future."
The free-agent period is often viewed solely through a business lens, and to a large extent that's the right way to look at it. Kupchak knows that, and that's why he's ready to offer Superman a five-year, $118 million contract—one year longer and $30 million richer than any offer he'll find elsewhere thanks to the league's collective bargaining agreement.
But there's always a personal element to any business decision—probably more so with an emotionally charged player like Howard. He needs to feel wanted, and he needs to know that he's on his way to earning the top billing even with the presence of those aforementioned Hall of Fame teammates in Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash.
So Kupchak's just massaging his ego right now, even though some pundits see the approach as simply "pathetic." There's a method to this madness (or sadness, if you're so inclined), a sound business strategy that too many are writing off as a desperate attempt to keep a dying relationship alive.
That extra bit of ego-boosting could do the last bit of convincing needed after those extra $30 million finish with their own sales pitch.