A future without Dwight Howard would entail a thorough rebuilding process

Jeff Gross

Although Dwight Howard very well could return to Los Angeles and make this article a moot point, the particulars of the rebuilding project that would ensue should he leave would irrevocably change the shape of the roster as we know it.

That Dwight Howard's looming free agency is the central focus of the offseason comes as little surprise given how many reports have been thrown back and forth concerning it and we probably could all benefit from tuning most of it out until Dwight actually decides on the locale he wants to spend the next four to five years in. We do, however, have to consider the possibility of a future without Dwight and Chris' piece did an excellent job in bringing to light the factors that would go into the aftermath of such an event. In short, the Lakers would essentially undergo a massive rebuilding project, jettisoning all the salary they could for as many assets as possible in order to undergo a thorough tanking job in 2014 for one of the blue chip prospects available at the top of what appears to be a stacked draft.

This process is not new or novel as Chris indicates. We have San Antonio losing David Robinson for the season and ending up with an all-time great in Tim Duncan with the subsequent draft, or more recently, Sam Presti in Seattle and subsequently Oklahoma City dealing away the pieces of a finished veteran roster in order to accrue the draft picks he needed to restart the team. There of course is the financial component the new CBA brings in the form of the repeater tax that the Lakers must almost certainly get under should Dwight leave in order to preserve future financial flexibility. There is an art to blowing up a team beyond merely getting rid of salary though: maximizing assets is important and determining where best to apply the Lakers' trade assets. In this light, let us walk through the various shades of the rebuilding process:

What are the Lakers' primary objectives in rebuilding?

As mentioned, the Lakers' foremost need is to get back under the tax to avoid paying crushing financial penalties for a team that doesn't plan to be competitive should Dwight leave. There's paying for a winner and there's being conscious of the financial situation that the Lakers are in. In any case, rebuilding is in essence taking every piece on the roster that doesn't fit into the team's long-term picture and turning them into assets that do fit that image. To be sure, the Lakers' "long-term" means something quite different than most teams given the team's ability to reload in free agency in a manner that other clubs cannot, but the initial year is mostly the same. Pretty much everything on the roster that isn't going to be part of the team's future in two years or so should be let go.

A simplified account of this is that the Lakers are dealing their age for youth, obtaining draft picks and young players that the team can use as pieces of a future rotation. Getting salary relief is the foremost concern, of course, but as soon as the Lakers can feel that they are comfortably under the tax, their principal issue is getting as much of a return on their pieces as they can. What they are dealing for are future assets, however, or at the very least, those that will take time develop because you aren't trying to improve the team in the short term. Quite to the contrary, you want the team to be as awful as possible, as the central part of rebuilding is being terrible in the short term in order to get the key contributors in the draft that are the foundation of your future prospects.

In the Lakers' case, this means being awful in pursuit of a high 2014 draft pick, taking advantage of a class that might be one of the best in recent memory. Chris laid out fairly clearly what the future endgame is after the Lakers take the proverbial leap of faith into a rebuilding: a major free agent signing, a young draftee with star potential, and all the flexibility in the world to add pieces around them. Kobe Bryant could even possibly be a part of that vision, but before we put the cart before the horse, there is quite the extended process that takes place before the Lakers can realize their hopes. First, we will jump into the straightforward stuff.

Terminating available options

The first housecleaning is the one the Lakers do themselves by declining options of every superfluous player that isn't relevant in the long term. The Lakers' current payroll has a number of these cases:

Player '13-'14 Salary '13-'14 Contract Status
Kobe Bryant $30,453,805 Guaranteed
Pau Gasol $19,285,850 Guaranteed
Steve Nash $9,300,500 Guaranteed
Metta World Peace $7,727,280 Early termination option
Steve Blake $4,000,000 Guaranteed
Chris Duhon $3,750,000 Only $1,500,000 guaranteed
Jordan Hill $3,563,600 Guaranteed
Jodie Meeks $1,550,000 Team option
Devin Ebanks $1,317,986 Qualifying offer
Darius Morris $1,202,744 Qualifying offer
Andrew Goudelock $1,084,293 Qualifying offer
Robert Sacre $988,872 Qualifying offer
Total: $79,631,035 ---

The easiest call of the offseason is to decline to exercise a qualifying offer to Devin Ebanks, who miserably failed to live up to expectations and will probably be scrounging for a job in Europe or the D-League next season. Past, that you start to enter more contested territory that requires a more thorough examination. Chris Duhon, for instance, will almost certainly not be on the team next year due to his non-guaranteed salary, but whether that means he is simply waived by the Lakers or used as a minor trade piece is an open question. If the Lakers offload sufficient salary to be comfortably beneath the tax, the latter could be a real possibility as the Lakers could take back a bit of salary if a pick or other asset could be the return piece. Recall also that the new CBA increases the amount of salary you can take back in deals to 150% plus $100,000 of the outgoing salaries so long as you are under the tax and not sending out more than roughly $10 million.

The issue of course is getting under the tax, which should remain somewhere around the $70 million mark that it was at last year and the team options and qualifying offers the Lakers can decline don't come close to getting them underneath it. We will return to this subject in a moment, so let us continue with the rest of the list. Coming to Jodie Meeks, his fit is already questioned on a competitive team that could use the shooting he failed to provide last year and it is an open subject as to whether he will be retained either way. Getting something for him probably isn't possible, although he easily could be included as collateral in a trade involving the Lakers' bigger salaries without much fuss. Either way, his salary is sufficiently small that it probably wouldn't hurt the Lakers with regards to their payroll to hold onto him and see if he can return to form and reclaim some value near the trade deadline. A competitive team would send him away to get a better option for the short-term, but a rebuilding one would sit on him to see if he could bear fruit down the road.

Lastly, we get to the Lakers' stable of young talent, all of whom should probably see their qualifying offers exercised if the Lakers are rebuilding. Remember, the whole point of this enterprise is to be really, really bad. If that means we're starting a Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock backcourt, so be it and you have an entire year of putting their feet to the fire to see if they can be molded into pieces for the future. This is especially the case for Morris, as he is entering year three and desperately needs to show that he belongs in a NBA rotation for the Lakers to have any interest in retaining him past 2014. In a rebuilding year, he would be given every opportunity to show that that should be the case. A similar calculus applies on a smaller level for Goudelock, who could possibly develop into a useful scoring combo guard, or Sacre, a potential backup big.

With Metta World Peace likely to opt into his final year, there isn't really much to say about the players in this area simply because they aren't very relevant to the large scale rebuilding activity unless someone like Morris starts to produce out of the blue. They are sufficiently inexpensive enough, however, that it doesn't hurt the Lakers to mine most of them for as much as they can get while the rest of the roster around them drastically changes. In any case, declining Ebanks' qualifying offer only moves the Lakers a smidgen closer to being under the tax and so would sending Meeks and Duhon away in lieu of using them as trade chips. Moving under requires tackling some of the bigger fish on the roster.

What do the Lakers do with Steve Nash?

Nash, now the oldest player in the league following Jason Kidd's retirement, is a key figure in this process, not only since his is the only contract that goes into the 2014 season. No doubt Nash treasures being close to his children, but he also came to Los Angeles to compete for a championship and needless to say, rebuilding is the complete opposite of that. He also fits the exact mold of a player a rebuilding team wants to jettison: an aging player on a deal past the immediate season who could have value to a veteran team seeking a contributor. Nash's trade heft, of course, is a pale shadow of what it was even a year ago, as an injury filled season exposed his declining jets, but still proved that he's an otherworldly shooter in every phase of the game.

Would a team like New York, one of Nash's suitors last offseason, be interested in obtaining him now that Kidd has left a hole in their backcourt? They clearly had no compunction in putting together an aging roster last offseason and Nash would fit that mold while giving them another ballhandler and shooter in the backcourt to buttress what was at times was an inconsistent offensive attack. Iman Shumpert was the prize piece New York offered to Phoenix and one could see either him or the Knicks' first rounder being an option along with appropriate salary ballast.

An option that probably came off the list, however, was Toronto now that they have obtained the services of Denver's Masai Ujiri as general manager. Although Executive of the Year is a pretty dismal method of acknowledging smart management as far as awards go, he has made quite a few savvy moves during his tenure as Denver's GM and very likely would not have gone to the absurd extent that Bryan Colangelo did last offseason in overpaying Landry Fields as a gambit to prevent New York from having the pieces to sign-and-trade for Nash. Regardless, there is almost no way for Toronto to complete a trade for Nash without saddling the Lakers with a highly undesirable contract assuming they are unwilling to let go of Kyle Lowry, a rather difficult proposition considering their differences in age.

Whatever target the Lakers settle on and Nash agrees is a suitable landing spot -- as remember, he can retire at any point and make this entire process moot -- will probably have to give the Lakers at least one significant asset for Nash, whether a decent young player or a first rounder. Salary relief isn't quite as important with the stretch provision in tow, although the Lakers would probably like to split Nash's salary into several pieces if money past next season is incoming. Altogether, the Lakers would want to come out such a transaction younger and with at least one piece they can keep as part of a future core. Even with Nash diminished as he is, that's not an especially tall order to fulfill.

How do the Lakers use the amnesty provision?

The Nash trade isn't a big part of getting under the tax; it's mostly a means of getting rid of some long-term salary and accruing assets. Nash's salary isn't big enough to be relevant in cost cutting unless the Lakers deal him for nothing and he has enough value to make such a stance impractical. What does play directly into the tax conversation is the amnesty provision, however, and we already had a long roundtable from the staff on who should be the primary amnesty target. The consensus that emerged was that Metta World Peace was the most likely target and this article doesn't disagree with that stance, especially since yours truly was part of that consensus.

But we should consider the possibility that Kobe Bryant decides that he doesn't want to be part of a rebuilding effort, even if we project it only to last for one or even two years. One can sell him on the David Robinson parallels when Robinson's injury allowed San Antonio to emerge with Tim Duncan and the central piece of a core that is competitive to this very day. Still, Kobe could believe that he can return from his Achilles injury with few ill effects and be effective immediately, increasing the demand that he be on a competitive team. That obviously doesn't jive with the Lakers' desire to bottom out and it's not unreasonable to expect Kobe being sufficiently good as to take the Lakers out of the 1-5 range in the lottery. That makes a big difference, especially when the cream of the crop is so distinguished in the 2014 class. There has to be a meeting of the minds either in the sense that Kobe agrees to take his sweet time coming back from injury Derrick Rose-style -- albeit in a much more PR-friendly fashion -- or that he and the Lakers find some way to mutually part ways for the time being.

The latter practically has to come in the form of the amnesty because trading Kobe is insanely difficult. Not only is his salary gargantuan and requires a herculean effort even to find some way to match the salaries, his no-trade clause prevents you from gutting the team he's going to in the process. The Lakers would almost certainly have to take on numerous long-term salary pieces that cripple their future flexibility because there's simply no other way to create a trade that works under the rules. Kobe would also have to do his own legwork in the amnesty process, as he has a very limited ability to chose his next team by more or less threatening to sit out the entire year if a team that isn't slated to be competitive or one that he simply doesn't want to be on bids for him.

Hopefully it doesn't come to that, however, and the easier path is Kobe staying on the team and taking it easy until the Lakers are comfortably bad enough that they have a fair shot at the top picks in the draft. In an ideal world, the Lakers bottom out utterly to maximize their chances at the number one spot and Andrew Wiggins, but it's also hard to maintain Kobe on the roster during that period and accomplish that goal in its entirety. Keeping Kobe as well as tanking is a dicey proposition and the front office and Kobe's camp need to spell out clearly their goals for next season in this regard.

All this taken aside, using the amnesty on Metta would put the Lakers under the tax line assuming they shave off a few other salaries such as Ebanks' or Meeks'.

Starting payroll $79,631,035
Luxury tax line ('12-'13) $70,307,000
Total payroll (decline Ebanks option) $78,313,049
Total payroll (amnesty Metta) $70,585,769
Total payroll (decline Meeks option) $69,035,769

You would still want more flexibility beneath the tax, whether for re-signing Earl Clark, a smart proposition to see how his development proceeds and to take advantage of his desire to stay on the team, or otherwise. Again, rebuilding is pointless if you can't get under the tax. Buying out Duhon's contract is probably the most impactful internal move the Lakers could make to add a cushion in this regard and a veteran team might be interested in the likes of Steve Blake. Nash might also get you some minor relief next season, but the primary heft of the Lakers' offseason savings is going to come from the chief piece in the offseason rebuilding effort.

What do the Lakers do with Pau Gasol?

Aside from negotiating with Kobe, the true test of Kupchak's managerial fortitude will be what he gets in return for Pau, the principal part of the offseason should rebuilding ensue. The two things that Kupchak needs to emerge with in the aftermath of a Pau trade are salary relief, meaning no long-term salary commitments, Pau's salary broken into multiple pieces, and reduced payroll this upcoming season; and young pieces, whether in the form of draft picks, guys on their rookie deals, or similar assets. If this looks familiar to what the team usually asks for Pau, remember that the Lakers basically don't care what short-term assets they receive in return so long as it relieves their payroll.

So for instance, if Washington was willing to throw in Emeka Okafor and the number three pick for Pau to aid their playoff search -- just presented as a hypothetical: Ernie Grunfeld isn't that bad of a GM...although he did give away a 2009 number five pick that had Ricky Rubio in that draft slot for Mike Miller and Randy Foye for their supposed playoff chase that year, so who knows? -- the Lakers would jump on that in a heartbeat since they would be entirely uncaring about Okafor's fit. Victor Oladipo, Otto Porter, or Anthony Bennett would hugely jump start the Lakers' rebuilding process in addition to whatever pick they get in 2014 following an extensive tank job.

Now, that's as idealized of a Pau trade as you can humanely imagine. The Lakers don't take on any future salary and get a prized asset in the meantime. General managers generally aren't dumb enough to do that nowadays with scouting and management as smart as it is though. The contention yours truly put forth in my draft primer that dealing Pau for a lottery pick is unrealistic, however, only sort of holds true in this situation. The Lakers' asking sheet for a Pau trade when speaking from the vantage point of a team trying to stay competitive is much steeper, as there have to be short and long-term pieces that are coming back in order to help the Lakers. Pau's value is no longer so high as to command pieces that meet both criteria.

It would be nice if the Lakers could convince some team in the lottery to part with their pick, however, even if the Washington scenario outlined above is a mere fantasy. To do so, the Lakers would need a team that sees itself as a viable playoff team with another piece next season and has the combination of cap space, a decent pick, and other young players that the Lakers would find attractive. An astute viewer would point to Oklahoma City, which has a late lottery pick and a good prospect in Jeremy Lamb from the James Harden trade, but there's no way the Lakers can conclude a trade with the Thunder receiving Pau without taking back Kendrick Perkins' contract, a pretty undesirable outcome.

We're not going to get into every possible scenario in the lottery, but there are also quite a few teams under the cap who don't have to send back equal value for Pau salary wise and the more distance the Lakers can get between their payroll and the tax line, the better. Even in a rebuilding year, the team will be bringing in filler for the rotation and there's the possibility of a value signing or two that the team could make that could become relevant a year or two down the road. Should they not have to pay the tax, the Lakers could also gain access to the full midlevel exception and that could increase their flexibility in bringing in those value signings, although it probably will go unused.

As a result, gauging the Lakers' rebuilding efforts mostly just requires on seeing what Kupchak can fetch for Pau since it influences so many other aspects of what the Lakers do this offseason and next season. The Lakers have always highly valued Pau and what he brings to the team, hence why he was only ever actually dealt in a deal for the greatest point guard of our generation, and cutting ties with him for the prize rebuilding requires will be bittersweet. That noted, the deal that brought him to LA paid dividends for his former team in Memphis and it serves as a reminder of the value that payroll flexibility and young pieces brings to your team.

Who are the draft prospects in 2014?

Ah, it would be nice to attach a name to all those mythical "young prospects" the Lakers would even enter into this rebuilding process for. Honestly, it is mostly irrelevant from the perspective that the draft is the easiest and best way to add young talent; the Lakers would move down this path for the sake of rebuilding even if the upcoming draft was viewed as mediocre. It just benefits the team that Andrew Wiggins, possibly one of the best prospects in recent memory and perhaps the most celebrated since LeBron James, happens to be eligible for the draft in 2014. His athleticism is otherworldly, he is incredibly skilled for a player his age, and has every conceivable tool you want in a star player. Some current executives flat out told Grantland's Zach Lowe that they would pay him the max right here and now to obtain him. He is simply that good of a prospect.

The guys below him on the totem pole aren't slouches either though. Julius Randle, the most recent shining example of Kentucky's -- or John Calipari's rather -- absurd ability to bring in deep, star-filled recruiting classes, is a super athletic four man who can post, shoot from range, handle the ball, and be a terror in transition. Arizona's Aaron Gordon is still very young at 17, but has great fundamentals, outstanding athleticism, and a great handle at the forward spot. Jabari Parker from Duke doesn't have the athleticism of many of the aforementioned names, although he is another forward great scoring ability as well as superb basketball instincts with his passing and ballhandling. Another Kentucky product in Andrew Harrison, who attends the school along with his brother Aaron, a less celebrated player, would be the best point guard prospect in 2014 if Marcus Smart had not chosen to go back to school and Smart would probably go to Orlando at number two in this draft.

All in all, the top of the 2014 draft is stacked, although Wiggins is the big prize obviously. This all indicates that there is a veritable goldmine of an opportunity for the Lakers if they are diligent in their rebuilding efforts. It also shows what is at stake in terms of not having Kobe overly derail the tanking process. There is no halfway rebuilding: that leads to mediocrity and mediocrity is the death knell for a NBA team's future. You become too good to get that elite talent at the top of the draft and too bad to ever make noise in the postseason when it matters. Ask the Philadelphia Sixers of late how that has gone for them.

Whomever the Lakers end up with in 2014, they will serve as the centerpiece of a team of young players, namely whatever pieces the Lakers got in the Pau and Nash deals as well as (hopefully) someone from their own farm such as Darius Morris. They also will have the benefit of a completely empty payroll, as the team would have no major salary commitments to anyone on the roster whatsoever and more than enough room to add up to two max salaried players.

How do the Lakers handle the free agent process in 2014 onwards?

Now, the Lakers' rebuilding process isn't immediately discredited if LeBron James doesn't leave Miami for LA in 2014. Probably the only way he actually does that in a situation in which Dwight has left the team and a thorough rebuild has been undertaken is if the Lakers actually get the number one pick and draft Wiggins after he has left a trail of destruction and carnage at Kansas. After that, the Lakers would still have gobs of cap space to add contributing pieces, most of whom they were developing after the Pau and Nash deals. This is especially why it's important to deal Pau for young talent and try for a lottery pick, as it only adds a piece that is more likely to be an important member of this core.

Still, let us say for the sake of argument that Miami finds a novel way to get under the tax to avoid the repeater penalties while staying competitive or Bron decides on a homecoming to Cleveland. All is certainly not lost, as it just means that the Lakers flex their muscle with their massive amounts of cap space and maintain their flexibility. There probably isn't another player deserving of a max salary that offseason besides Carmelo Anthony, although even he wouldn't be a bad option considering that the Lakers would still have room to add a lot of other pieces around him. Kyle Lowry, for instance, would be someone there on the cheaper side and the Lakers also could rent out their cap space in exchange for picks and other assets, something that could possibly counteract their lack of a pick in 2015.

The offseason in 2015 is probably when the rebuilding process ends, however, as Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, and possibly Roy Hibbert or Brook Lopez hit the market. One of these guys in addition to the 2014 lottery pick, any major free agent signing in 2014, the young pieces received from Pau, whatever the team got for Nash, and any number of other contributors becomes the core of a team that hopefully has significant aspirations that year and is still developing. Even Kobe could be part of this team, although he would have to take a significant salary cut to be part of it past 2015. Regardless, the dream Chris presented of Andrew Wiggins and LeBron James on the same squad probably isn't happening, but neither is it entirely implausible either if the Lakers are very diligent in their rebuilding efforts.

One might think at the end of all this why the Lakers simply don't tell Dwight to get lost, or even better: sign-and-trade him to Houston, Golden State or wherever in exchange for a few young pieces to even further push forward the rebuilding process. The simple reason is that the above process is fraught with uncertainty at every step of the way, the advantages the Lakers have over most rebuilding teams in terms of their ability to attract free agents aside. You need all those young pieces to develop, you have to deal Pau and Nash for the right packages, you have to win out in the lottery when it ultimately is a game of chance, and your sales pitch has to be adequate to those free agents to join a rebuilding team. The task of convincing Kobe to be a part of this process in his twilight years might eclipse all of these items in difficulty, moreover.

The great thing about Dwight returning is that it removes so much of that uncertainty. At his peak, Dwight is a super elite player worthy of having his name mentioned in the company of the best players ever to set foot on a basketball court and he becomes part of the recruiting pitch towards all those free agents in 2014 and 2015. You don't have to bother with the Kobe situation since he will be coming back to a competitive team and both Nash and Pau probably stay along for the ride next year too before the latter expires and the former probably becomes a victim of the stretch provision. Adding pieces is also easier when you have an established identity around your best player and aren't trying to cobble one together as your core constantly changes over the years.

So the rebuilding process is difficult, but it is also necessary if Dwight leaves. As previously noted, nothing is worse than mediocrity. The Lakers aren't an exception to this: either you are in playoff contention, an up and comer with developing pieces, or in full out bottoming out mode trying for a rebuild. Staying the course without Dwight is probably the worst thing the team could possibly do. In any case, it would probably be remiss of us not to have faith in the front office given how they succeeded in their rebuilding process after 2004, although Dwight leaving will require Kupchak performing more of his magic as the Lakers jump down the rabbit hole into unfamiliar territory.

Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.

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