Dwight Howard's quixotic journey out of Orlando, into Los Angeles and finally settling in Houston has mercifully ended its stranglehold on the fortunes of no less than six franchises across the NBA. The seven-time All-Star center chose the Rockets over the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks, citing his desire to win more than anything, and Houston's proximity to making that become a reality. As the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan astutely points out, this is the first time a player of Howard's caliber has willingly left the Lakers in free agency. The next closest example of that ever happening is A.C. Green almost 20 years ago--a true indication of how rare an occurrence a moment of humility is for the 16-time NBA World Champions.
Let's get this out of the way: regardless of what anyone thinks about Howard's attitude, work ethic, decision-making ability or on-court ability, he made a solid choice. He looked at the immediate future for all of the clubs in question, and selected the one with a budding 23-year-old superstar, a cutting edge front office and nearly $20 million dollars in cap room in just two years time. Meanwhile, the Lakers asked him to trust a front office that has made very recent, very shaky decisions, look past coach Mike D'Antoni's shortcomings and believe that a 35-year-old Kobe Bryant and a 39 year-old Steve Nash could come back from injuries and compete for a title. Dwight deliberated all of this knowing the pedigree of the Lakers organization and mulling an extra $30 million dollars in purple and gold change, but ultimately chose what he could see in front of him versus what was promised. I can't say I fault him for making that decision.
If healthy, Dwight Howard is an absolute knock-out of a signing for Houston. Despite a reputation to the contrary, the Rockets finished the year 16th in defensive efficiency and second to last in points allowed per game, all of which should improve with a 3-time Defensive Player of the Year in the fold. He's a more active shot blocker than the incumbent Omer Asik, as well as a better scorer on every avenue (well...except free throws). Howard should feast off a much better three-point shooting team than the Lakers were last year, with James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley and perhaps Jeremy Lin gunning from long. If spry and unencumbered by a recovery from surgery, Dwight should be able to mesh well with one of league's best fast break offenses as well as improve defense on the run. The Rockets are young and untested with a coach that has won exactly 2 playoff games while holding a clipboard, so they'll have much to prove before anyone considers them title contenders. But they've got all the necessary pieces in place to get there, and quickly.
Going back West, like every chapter in Lakers lore, whether it be a championship at the final buzzer of the season or on the receiving end of a sweep at the first round, the question is always "what's next?" Let's take a look at the hanging plot threads:
Will there be a sign & trade agreement for Dwight?
All signs point to "no" right now, though that could change in the coming days. All reports thus far have the Rockets signing Howard outright for four years and $88 million, as opposed to the five years and $118 million the Lakers could have offered. Dwight mentioned to Dave McMenamin at ESPNLA.com that leaving the Lake Show is a "$30 million dollar gamble", which leaves the distinct impression that the Lakers wouldn't agree to any sign and trade deal that would give Howard five years and $118 million, as well as sending the Lakers back assets in the trade.
However, GM Mitch Kupchak and VP of Player Personnel Jim Buss have been carefully constructing a salary structure whereby the Lakers would have max salary room to go after not just LeBron James in July 2014 , but also another max free agent that summer. Taking back players in an S&T agreement with Houston could blow that up, especially in regards to prime targets Asik and Lin ($15 million a piece).
Moreover, why would Houston want a contract with a higher average value per year and an extra year tacked on for a player who spent the entire 2012-2013 season recovering from back surgery? Even if the Lakers would agree to an S&T deal, there's a great chance the Rockets wouldn't want a part in that.
This could all just be posturing by the Lakers in the end, using their ability to give Howard an extra $30 million as a negotiating tactic. Now that the negotiations are over, perhaps LA will soften their stance if draft picks or low priced assets (Chandler Parsons at less than $1 million would work, but is unlikely) would be sent back in return for Howard, if indeed they want him locked up for that fifth year.
It hurts to lose Howard for nothing, but an S&T agreement would most likely hinder a chance to court LeBron James in one year's time. That, coupled with the financial risk in signing Howard for Houston leads me to believe that the Lakers and Rockets won't strike a pact.
In regards to the salary cap, what can the Lakers do to improve a 45-37 team?
Not much. The Lakers have very little room to sign free agents this summer, armed with only a $3 million dollar bi-annual mini mid-level exception. Other than that, LA will only be able to sign players for the veteran's minimum (around $1 million), their draft pick (Ryan Kelley), their own free agents (down to Darius Morris, Andrew Goudelock and Antawn Jamison, who's already said he's not returning) as well as non-roster training camp invitees.
It's not a great situation, especially seeing how thin the Lakers were to begin with.
The two year echo chamber of Pau Gasol trade rumors have to stop...don't they?
Well, you'd think so. But people still like to suggest that Kobe's not a true champion because he won three rings with Shaquille, so anything is possible.
With Howard gone, Gasol presumably steps in at the team's starting center next year from Day 1. Earlier today, Ramona Shelburne reported that Pau would not be amnestied, which means he's either playing for the Lakers next season or getting traded. There's a noticeable dearth of talent on this team, and if the front office wants to keep any prayer of remaining competitive next year, dealing Gasol isn't an option. This of course, raises the issue...
To tank or not to tank: is it even a question?
This is probably the hottest topic on the minds and tongues of Lakers fans everywhere: do the Lakers tank in preparation for a high pick with one of the best draft classes in years on the horizon? With Dwight in the fold, the debate would have raged at a much lower volume. With his departure, Howard set off a maelstrom of conversations even louder than the boos he'll receive in STAPLES Center next November.
There aren't answers readily apparent--at least not yet. But seeing how this franchise has operated in the past, as well as the team's unwillingness to compromise max cap room in 12 months, I don't see a future where Gasol is traded away for nothing, Kobe is waived via the amnesty provision and every other useful part is scrapped for assets. I'm not saying it's the right decision or the wrong one, but Kobe's standing with the Lakers, as well as his place in NBA history leads me to believe that the front office would have a harder time parting with him, even moreso than the Celtics did with Paul Pierce. Perhaps Gasol, Bryant and Nash, players all close both personally and in regards to on court mettle, might prosper without the divisive Howard in the periphery. The purpose of the game is to win, and though that's such a basic argument to make, the Lakers can build back up without the ignominy of losing 50 to 60 games for two or three seasons.
Still, the evidence to rebuild weighs heavy: Pau is 33 years old, Steve Nash is nearly 40, Kobe is almost 35 and coming off major surgery, the team cannot sign anyone costing more than $3 million annually and their All-Star center has left the team. Last season with a cavalcade of injuries and lack of team chemistry, the Lakers finished 45-37. Without a superhuman effort from Kobe for at least a handful of games, not to mention the lagging effects of recovery for most of the season, as well as missing a 27-year old All-NBA big man, do the Lakers need to attempt to tank? Or will it just happen on its own? Lest we forget, with a 33-49 record the Lakers selected Andrew Bynum with the number 10 pick in 2005, and with the same record 4 years later the Chicago Bulls jumped all the way to the number one pick and chose Derrick Rose.
The wheels seem to have come off this ride faster than any of us could have ever imagined--it seems that the signs to blow everything up and rebuild from scratch are ominously prescient. The Lakers might not have to look any further than at their eternal rivals from Boston to see that even the most glorified teams in the NBA can't hold up against the punitive new CBA that has helped them stay upright decade after decade.
It's not for me to say definitively that the Lakers should or should not tank, but there's a strong case to be made for both.
What the 2013-2014 season post-Howard will come down to is whether or not the front office decides that it's time to rebuild now, or the team can do so without trying to lose 50 to 60 games next season. If they go with the former, it will go down as one of the most devastating and shocking off-seasons in team history. If they go with the latter, then the team seen last year, sans Dwight of course, will be the squad to try to pick up the pieces, form another identity around coach Mike D'Antoni and try to remain competitive until they can try and call on LeBron James in 2014.
This was just a little teaser for the next several weeks and months of coverage on SS&R. I touched on several topics that we'll get into much deeper as this already....fascinating off-season develops. Stay tuned.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino