After much anticipation and inconclusive reports, Howard confirmed his choice Thursday night via Twitter:
I've decided to become a member of the Houston Rockets. I feel its the best place for me and I am excited about joining the Rockets and I'm looking forward to a great season. I want to thank the fans in Los Angeles and wish them the best.
He didn't feel comfortable returning to the Lakers, so Mitch Kupchak and Co. are left with almost nothing to work with in the short term.
For now, the Lakers' first goal is to say "good riddance," forget about Howard and work as a unit to put the best possible product on the floor in 2013-14.
Kobe also unfollowed Howard on Twitter almost immediately after Dwight's departure became official:
With the less-than-warm farewells out of the way, what is the short-term and long-term outlook for the Lakers?
Immediate Fallout in 2013-14
There's almost nothing the Lakers can do this offseason to significantly upgrade their roster, as they're already in luxury-tax territory.
They could pick up an affordable post player such as Kenyon Martin or another free-agent guard, but other than that, their adjustments will be made in-house.
A likely scenario would see Jordan Hill pairing up with Pau Gasol in the post to fill the void left by Howard. It's not the most exciting scenario for Lakers fans, but Hill has shown promise in his first few years in the league.
In the backcourt, Kobe and Steve Nash are going to have to carry the load as they grin and bear a supporting cast consisting primarily of Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake.
Acquiring a shooter such as Anthony Morrow would be a nice pickup, but he would probably need to take a significant pay cut.
As previously mentioned, the immediate band-aid to patch up Howard's departure consists of an ultra-cheap signing or the promotion of Jordan Hill to the starting lineup.
But what about the long-term plan?
In 2014, nearly every contract comes off the books, and Kupchak will have loads of cash to spend on a low-post anchor.
There aren't any megastar centers available then, but some of the potential signees could turn into megastars once they hit their stride in Los Angeles.
In Monroe, the Lakers would be getting a polished all-around post player with great court awareness and offensive instincts. In Cousins, they would get a rather immature center who is extremely gifted on the low block and has a higher ceiling than Monroe.
The Kobe Era and Post-Kobe
The biggest question facing the club in the near future is how long Kobe will be around and how effective will he be during the final stage of his career.
For starters, he must successfully rehab from his Achilles tear, as his return date projects to be midseason in 2013-14.
In an interview with Mike Trudell of Lakers.com, Bryant asserts that he can play at a high level for another three years. While that sounds like an optimistic projection, we know better than to underestimate a five-time champion.
If this timeline is accurate, then Los Angeles is looking at re-signing Kobe Bryant to a two-year deal after he finishes his current contract in the spring of 2014.
Ideally, the team would like to get some major pieces in order before Bryant is out the door, which means next summer is a pivotal one.
Summer of 2014
Unless Kupchak is able to pull up some financially healthy trades between now and next summer, the 2014 offseason is going to be the Lakers' first real chance to reload and shape the roster in anticipation of Kobe's eventual departure.
We already talked about the potential big-man signees, and that's going to be critical. They need to sign a Monroe or Cousins type of center, one who will get them 15-plus points and 10-plus rebounds per night.
Which playmaker could replace Bryant in the future? LeBron James, of course:
There's no guarantees that anything will work out in the LeBron-to-Lakers endeavor, so there will be plenty of other free agents Los Angeles will speak to. Those players include, but aren't limited to, Carmelo Anthony, Eric Bledsoe and John Wall.
The Kobe Bryant era has treated Lakers fans well and continued a longstanding legacy of excellence and championships. Howard's decision to leave for Houston makes the future a bit more cloudy for Kupchak and Co.
They must carefully bring Bryant back from his Achilles rehab and also form a roster that will be competitive long after he retires in 2015 or 2016.
Kupchak and Mike D'Antoni have their work cut out for them, but at least we know the future won't lack excitement and drama on and off the court.
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