In just a few days' time, Dwight Howard could leave the Los Angeles Lakers. The Houston Rockets have been reported as the center's top suitor, with LA and the Dallas Mavericks in the mix and the Atlanta Hawks bringing up the rear. It's a sobering reality to think of a star player leaving the bright lights of Southern California for Dallas, Houston or Atlanta, but Howard is bringing a strange new world to one of the most celebrated franchises in all of sports.
As I scan the pulse of Lakers fans everywhere, I've noticed a discernible notion that letting Dwight Howard walk is not the worst scenario possible. Some have mentioned that he's not worth the years or money, while others simply don't want to build around a player who has such a flair for problematic drama. Another group feels that his prime has come and gone, and his health issues from last season weren't just a one year malady.
There is one more sector of Lakers fans that believe it's okay if Dwight leaves because the reinforcements are on the way in just 12 months' time. Regardless of Howard's status with the team, there will be long-term solutions available.
They are wrong.
The vaunted 2014 free agent class is a myth. It doesn't exist. The highlight of the 2014 free agency class starts and ends with LeBron James, who can potentially terminate his contract with the Miami Heat and become an unrestricted free agent next July. At that point, he'll be able to sign with any team he wishes with the requisite cap room, which as of today, includes the Los Angeles Lakers.
Beyond James? There isn't much there. Let's break down the list as it stands today:
Unrestricted free agency is: when a player is able to sign with any team he chooses outright. His former team has no rights to him at all.
Do any of those guys look like franchise saviors to you? Both Bryant and Dirk will be 35+, and neither is expected to leave his current team. Gasol is an attractive option even at 34 in a year's time, but if he was such a great option to build around, the Lakers would be proceeding with that now. Andrew Bogut could be a franchise changing player who will be only 29, but he does most of what Dwight Howard does, except missing more games due to injury and he, quite frankly, isn't as good as D12. Deng and Granger are really nice players, but both will be 30 next year and have had a very real recent history of injury problems. Even at their fully healthy peaks, there's some debate as to whether they're better building blocks than Howard. Personally, it's not even a debate.
Restricted free agency is: when a player can sign an offer sheet with another team (meaning a team can offer him years and money), but his former team has the ability to match any contract offer. The most recent example is Eric Gordon having his 4 year, $58 million dollar offer sheet from the Phoenix Suns matched by the New Orleans Hornets last off-season. Gordon was quoted as saying "his heart is with the Suns", but NOLA had no responsibility to bend to their shooting guard's whims.
Irving, Wall, Monroe and George? You want a premium free agent with youth on his side? You got it!
But not really. As explained above, these players will only be free agents insofar as they can get offers from other teams, but could have their contracts fully matched by their current teams. Cleveland, Washington, Detroit and Indiana are not letting their young stars go, even if another squad offers a maximum contract. None of those franchises have had the most solid leadership over the years, but it's almost a no-brainer to keep around these players who are entering their primes but won't have even hit their 26th birthdays next year. None of these players are coming to the Lakers barring a serious injury, in which case handing out a large contract would be a very controversial decision.
Bledsoe, Cousins and Favors are both questionable additions here, but whoever their teams are at the end of next year will almost assuredly match contract terms based on sheer potential. Even still, is the Lakers fan base salivating at the notion of starting anew with a 36 year-old Kobe, a 41 year-old Steve Nash and either Eric Bledsoe and Derrick Favors?
The bottom line? These players are free agents in name only. There is close to zero percent chance they will be wearing purple and gold in a year.
Player Option: Zach Randolph
Player option is: when a player can opt-in to the next year of his contract, regardless of what the team wants. The most recent examples are Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, who opted in (infamously in one of their cases) to the final years of their deals.
Z-Bo could potentially forgo the last year of his deal at $16.5, but even if he did, is a 33 year-old PF with declining athleticism someone you want to build with?
I thought not.
Early termination option is: when a player can end his contract prematurely and become an unrestricted free agent. This is much more common in baseball when a player in his prime opts out of his deal in order to sign for more years and more money. Of course, the player can forgo his ETO and continue on with the deal he originally signed.
First and foremost: Amar'e Stoudemire is not electing to punch his ETO. He's got $23 million coming to him, which is a bigger sum of money than he'll probably make the rest of his career. Besides, his best days are behind him; no one is looking to STAT as a building block.
Bosh and Wade are much better players than they may appear when playing next to James and subjugating their skills for the sake of winning, but more than likely won't be franchise cornerstones in a year's time. Wade has broken down the last 3 postseasons and will be 32 next summer. Bosh will be just 30, and even as a twenty-something in Toronto, didn't prove himself as being someone that could carry a team.
If any team is looking forward to next summer to find a franchise building block, the answer is singular: LeBron James. He is the only player potentially reaching unrestricted free agency that could be a complete game changer for any team looking to build from the ground up. Any organization clearing cap room, including the Lakers, has to have one name in mind. And that's it. Next summer we're not talking about multiple options if Dwight Howard leaves: there is only one option. If Howard walks and LeBron re-signs in Miami or returns to Cleveland, LA has no other fallback plans. 2014 is about getting a shot at LeBron James, period. Considering the reigning MVP's greatness, it's not a terrible plan, but is a gigantic gamble.
If Howard stays? The free agency class takes on a different look altogether. With nearly $30 million in cap room, the Lakers can augment a Dwight (and perhaps one or two years of Kobe Bryant) core with very good players like Chris Bosh, Luol Deng or perhaps Eric Bledsoe. Most of those free agents are worthy of building around by themselves, but if they were used to build around a star, summer 2014 transforms from a one-man crap shoot into a buffet with several attractive options.
In 12 months, there is one target: LeBron James. That is it. This is not a situation where Dwight Howard leaves and the Lakers will be back on their feet in a year. The rebuilding will most likely be delayed another year, when the targets will be Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, Rajon Rondo and LaMarcus Aldridge could all become free agents.
Meanwhile, the Lakers have limited assets and don't control their 2015 first round draft pick. I'm not suggesting the Lakers cannot find a way to grab a franchise player within the next one, two or three years, but what I am saying is that the blithe dogma of July 2014 being a shoe-in for reloading is only true as long we're talking about LeBron James specifically. Even more to the point, maybe we should all revisit if we should be so eager to see Howard walk all the way to Texas.
Next summer's free agent class of saviors is a myth. More of a myth is that that the free agent class is still great even without Howard in purple and gold. Next summer, there is one free agent savior. And that is what we should all be talking about in the case that Dwight leaves LA.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino