It's no secret that the Los Angeles Lakers will probably need to forge a new path to the next era of franchise dominance. After all, their current roster (one which failed miserably last year) is all but locked in place to take one more shot before being utterly and completely decimated. Barring wholesale changes, the Lakers will probably fail next season as well, and there will be nobody left under contract for any further attempts. This is good thing because, with an aging roster that can't get the morning paper without pulling a hamstring, few franchises need to press the reset button as much as LA needs to.
Nevertheless, the process of knocking the franchise down to its foundations and rebuilding is one that could take some time ... 1 year, 5 years, 10; hell, it is a process that could never happen again. There are no guarantees in this world, not even the dominance of the Los Angeles Lakers. LA has enough inherent advantages over the rest of the league to make the next climb to the top of the mountain feel as inevitable as all the previous climbs were, but the NBA is a different landscape now, and the new CBA certainly makes it harder for the Lakers to transform their advantages into advantageous results. The new path forward will need to take that into account, which is why this next statement isn't as crazy as it seems.
The path to the next era of Lakers dominance is less complicated without Dwight Howard
Come July 1st, or however much time after that it takes Dwight Howard to decide where he wants to play next year, the Lakers' path will have its first road marker. If Dwight re-signs, the Lakers will seek to build the team of the future around him. There will probably be a lot of outside shooting involved, with a strategy similar to that of Dwight's better teams in Orlando. Let Dwight have space down low, and punish any team who tries to take that space away by bombing them to hell from the 3 point line. If Dwight is in tow, that is the most likely path forward. If Dwight Howard does not re-sign, the first road mark on the path will be a gigantic question mark. The Lakers will be left with nothing after this season. No superstars, no contracts (except for one last year of Steve Nash), no players, no specific strategy to pursue.
And no complications. If Howard chooses to play somewhere other than Los Angeles next year, it will make the Lakers' re-boot easier to achieve. Without Howard, the Lakers will have a completely blank slate in 2014. With virtually nobody under contract, they'll be far enough under the cap to seek out one or two free agents of the highest quality* (see below). And they will not be limited in their search by having to find players that fit in with the guy they've already committed to building around. If they want to sign somebody like, say, Tony Allen (just an example, I don't even know if he's a free agent), they don't have to worry about how Tony's lack of outside shooting will jive with Dwight's need for space in the middle. All they will need to do is make sure all of their signings fit together, and they'll have the ability to enact the entire vision all at once. It is easier to construct a team all at once than it is to pick the main piece now and have to wait a year to get the other pieces. However, this is not the main reason why Dwight leaving will make things easier for the Lakers.
*The Kobe question complicates this process: Will he retire, as he indicated he would before he injured his Achilles? Will he still be an elite player? How much money will he want to continue his career in LA, and will he be worth it? Can he take a back seat to another star, or will he attempt to maintain his alpha dog status? Will he seek out a more immediate championship opportunity? So many questions there.
The main reason is this: If Dwight leaves, the Los Angeles Lakers will undoubtedly be terrible next year. That is a good thing. That is a great thing. When you are trying to re-build, being terrible can be a key element in the equation, because being terrible allows you to become less terrible through the draft. Next year's draft just happens to be littered with possibly elite players, and if you get lucky enough to land a guy like Andrew Wiggins, the draft allows you to get A LOT less terrible. Perhaps most importantly of all in this luxury tax era of repeat offender clauses and progressive taxation (i.e. teams just over the luxury tax pay less, dollar for dollar, than teams way over the luxury tax), the draft allows you to become less terrible for dirt cheap. If you get an elite player through the draft, you get that elite player dirt cheap for four years.
Not only does landing an elite player through the draft help the Lakers build a championship contender without breaking the bank, it allows LA to solve the problem of the luxury tax repeater penalty, at least for the near future. The way the penalty works is that any team that is over the luxury tax in four out of five years has to pay an extra dollar for every dollar over the luxury tax limit they are. That might not seem so bad if a team is barely over the luxury tax limit, but if a team's salary is well over the luxury tax AND they are paying the repeater penalty, said penalty in addition to the progressive taxation adds up real quickly, and suddenly you are paying $3 or $4 in tax for every $1 you are paying in salary beyond the threshold. The Lakers have the money to be able to handle paying the progressive taxation while carrying a payroll higher than most of the league for a year or two, but the repeater penalty ensures that they won't be able to do so permanently.
Well, being terrible for a year and then landing some free agents in 2014 guarantees they won't have to worry about the repeater penalty until at least 2019. If Dwight Howard walks, LA's first, and only, priority should be getting under the luxury tax threshold. Hell, considering their objective should be to be as terrible as possible, they should seek to get well under the luxury tax threshold. That means trading Pau Gasol for whatever they can get in youth and draft picks. That means amnestying Metta World Peace. Whatever it takes, the Lakers have to, HAVE TO be under the luxury tax for next season. And then, in 2014, when they have nobody under contract and will seek out as many top tier free agents as they can muster, they are virtually guaranteed to be under the tax threshold again. The salary cap, which will limit how much money the Lakers can pay players who are not on their team, is much lower than the luxury tax threshold. So, in a year in which you sign one or two top free agents, it is highly unlikely that you'd be able to circumvent the salary cap well enough to need to pay the luxury tax. All the years after that, when your free agent salaries continue to escalate and you have another year or two of mid level exception contracts to spend ... you will be stuck in luxury tax hell for a few years. But, as long as the Lakers play it smart and do not exceed the luxury tax limit with their new (hopefully star-studded) roster in 2015, after getting under the threshold and being terrible in 2014, they will have three years to do whatever they want salary wise and not have to worry about the repeater penalty.
Of course, as the old (slightly modified) saying goes, A superstar in the hand is worth two in the bush. There's no guarantee the Los Angeles Lakers will be able to duplicate some sort of super-team, and it seems highly unlikely that they would be able to land the one guy in 2014 (LeBron, who might, maybe, possibly be a free agent) that would virtually guarantee all the other pieces falling into place. Nabbing Dwight Howard now, even with the risk that he might not fully recover his top 2 or 3 status in the league, is not a bad move to make.
But, having Howard on the roster would likely prevent next year's Lakers from being truly terrible, thus dimming their chances of landing some elite (and cheap) talent to assist the cause. His salary would already be growing by next season, thereby reducing LA's ability to bring in new free agents under the salary cap. Any roster addition the Lakers would make would need to take into account the player's fit with Howard offensively or defensively. Lastly, Dwight's salary, in addition to Kobe's, would make it very difficult for the Lakers to get under the luxury tax threshold. With Dwight Howard, the Lakers will be a better team next year, a team that has an outside chance (very outside) of fixing enough issues from last year's version as to become competitive. But, unless that outside chance actually comes through, it may impede the Lakers' chances of building as strong of a team as they can in 2014 and beyond.
Without Dwight Howard, however, the Los Angeles Lakers have a unique opportunity. Their best player will (probably) be injured for most of the season. They will trade their 2nd best player (Gasol) for youth and draft picks. Their 3rd best player will be 40 years old, and the rest of their roster will be terrible. They will have a legitimately bad team that will lose a bunch of games, and guarantee a relatively high draft pick in a draft littered with talent. And then 2014 will come, and they will have enough cap space to go after at least one, and possibly two elite free agents, hopefully in addition to re-signing Kobe Bryant at a somewhat discounted rate. And they won't have to worry about any consequences of their spending spree for four years.
This is the 1997 San Antonio Spurs and the 2010 Miami Heat combined. There are two recognized ways of becoming a contender in today's NBA. You either get lucky through the draft, or you convince some stars to come form a super-team for you. The Lakers have the opportunity to do both AT THE SAME TIME. You are looking at a best case scenario of LeBron James, Andrew Wiggins (who cares if they play the same position), Kobe Bryant, and an elite big man of some kind (Hell, Chris Bosh might be available). The worst case scenario still includes a high draft pick in a very strong draft, Kobe (hopefully), and gobs of cap space to use when the right player(s) come around (Kevin Love in 2015, anybody?) Is it guaranteed to work? No way. Is it risky as hell? Sure.
But if you are looking for a way to build a new dynasty quickly in the economic reality of today's NBA, you couldn't dream of a better path forward then that. And Dwight Howard isn't a part of it.