The short term ramifications of losing Dwight Howard in free agency are obvious: even the most fanciful dreams of returning as title contenders next season are officially dead. The Lakers watched a 27-year-old center--whose capabilities, when healthy, make him a top-5 NBA player--walk right out the door. Gone is a future face of a franchise, whose defensive dominance would have kept the Lakers competitive even in the most dire of injury situations. The Lakers have lost their starting center, the fulcrum of their D and a perennial All-Star.
Long term? The damage could be much more profound. The ultimate cost may be losing a significant advantage that could have helped sign LeBron James in July 2014.
As I've detailed before, next summer's free agency class is going to be much more underwhelming than many are making it out to be. Aside from James, there no other players that stand out as potential franchise cornerstones. Young players like Greg Monroe, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Paul George will be restricted free agents (if they aren't extended before the season begins) whose teams are likely to match whatever contract terms they are offered. The crop of unrestricted free agents will be players like Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Danny Granger, Andrew Bogut and Luol Deng, each of whom is either incapable of carrying a team by himself or too old to be a more than one or two year solutions at best. Then there are the handful of players that can choose to terminate their contracts early, such as the aforementioned James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony.
Out of those four, LeBron is the only player that has age, talent and a winning pedigree on his side to truly serve as the type of franchise savior the Lakers need. Bosh has proven in Toronto that he's not quite equipped for that type of responsibility, while Anthony has won just two postseason series in his ten playoff trips. Now that the Lakers do not have Howard's services and Kobe Bryant is much closer to the end of his career than the beginning, the self-stylized "Chosen One" could be LA's best hope for a quick rebuild.
However, without Dwight Howard in tow, it's going to be a tougher sell than ever before to get LeBron to sign on GM Mitch Kupchak's dotted line.
Over three years ago, James left the Cleveland Cavaliers very publicly, very brutally, in a PR disaster that even those outside of Northeastern Ohio haven't forgiven him for to this day. His Decision led him to Miami, teaming up with fellow All-Stars and 2003 draftees Wade and Bosh and forming a trio that's been to three NBA Finals in a row, and counting. Whether you agreed with their decision to unite or despise their perceived arrogance, there's no disagreeing with the fact that their master plan has worked. The three have two rings, and will still be considered the favorites to win it all again when the season starts in November.
LeBron left Cleveland for a myriad of reasons, though two come to mind more prominently than all the others. The first, and most inescapable truth is that James knew in order to win, he would need help from another elite player (or even two) that would best complement his ample skillset. LBJ looked at his capped out Cavaliers roster and saw no accompanying All-NBA headliner, but more importantly understood that Cleveland had no financial flexibility to grab another any time soon. This sparked a second, and even more important reason to leave, which was his lack of faith in the Cavaliers front office to build a winner around him. In the preceding seven seasons, Cleveland management had imported players like Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall, a 37-year-old Shaquille O'Neal and Drew Gooden, all of whom shared one All-Star appearance between them while on the Cavaliers (Williams in 2009). With a seemingly unlimited credit ceiling from owner Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers consistently went into the luxury tax to build a series of great regular season teams, but never quite good enough to give James the proper support he needed to topple the elite squads in the NBA playoffs. The front office had chance after chance to build a champion around LeBron, but failed to grab one fellow elite player that would stop the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic from beating up on the Cavs year after year. James no longer wanted to wait for the talent to come to him. He went out and got it himself.
I've contested that after years with the Cavaliers, in which he waited on a management team to deliver players like Amar'e Stoudemire and instead got Antawn Jamison, LeBron learned that he simply cannot be his dominant best without the requisite elite talent around him. Thus, next summer, I expect him to go where the help is. He will not put himself in a situation where it's Cleveland all over again, with James getting quadruple teamed while teammates wait in the corner to take the jump shot they'll inevitably miss. LeBron didn't leave Cleveland just because of the market size or his proximity to the ocean. He left because he knew Miami would be able to aggregate the talent he needed to win, and they could do it now.
Without Dwight Howard, why would LeBron come to Los Angeles? To team with a 41 year-old Steve Nash, and perhaps two re-signed players in a 36-year-old Kobe Bryant and a 34 year-old Pau Gasol? Or maybe to play with a 29 year-old Luol Deng who's been amongst the league leaders in minutes per game for the past three seasons and counting? Or maybe to team with Danny Granger, who missed almost the entire 2012-2013 season, or with a 33 year-old Zach Randolph whose athleticism is in question this day, let alone a year from now?
Let's say the Lakers "tank" this season, and indeed get the number 1 pick Andrew Wiggins. We can go even so far as to say that the team trades Pau Gasol for additional picks. As talented as Wiggins reportedly is, would LeBron want to go through the struggles of teaching a 19-year-old kid how to become a man in this NBA game? Or would he want to go to Cleveland, miles from his Akron home, where Kyrie Irving is already an elite point guard?
If Dwight Howard were still a Laker, the lure of his talent alone in this new CBA-ruled NBA could be a strong part of the pitch to convince LeBron to sign in Los Angeles. Of all the teams with enough cap room to offer a contract to James next season, there's little doubt that a productive, healthy Howard would be the most attractive player on any of those squads. Now with the roster bereft of long-term stars, the Lakers are essentially telling James to sign with the Lakers in 2014 and wait for the reserves to come in 2015, when Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and others are on the free market.
Without Howard on the Lakers to team with 'Bron and turn into an instant contender, why would James waste a year of his prime waiting for a payoff that might never come? Yes, any team with LeBron James will be a nominal contender for the title, but could he win with two 30-somethings, a few role players and perhaps Deng, Granger or Andrew Bogut? Possibly, but the King shouldn't be gambling on short-term fixes when a young star like Irving has a ready-made elite squad primed for dominance. More importantly, perhaps LeBron James shouldn't be gambling on this Lakers front office.
As many writers have pointed out, Howard's departure from the Lakers is as much of a troubling sign of the state of the management team as it is any other part of the franchise. In the past, players like Kobe Bryant (2004) and Shaquille O'Neal (1996) signed as free agents when the organization had an equally murky future. Neither won titles immediately, and in Bryant's case went directly to playing on a lottery team. In a similar situation, LA's front office couldn't convince Howard of their rebuilding strategy and re-up for five more years. Of course that's a very simplistic way of looking at the complex play-skool toy that's Howard's mind, but in the end, management failed in their quest to keep their elite free agent.
Why would LeBron James sign up with a front office that's seemingly bungled every major decision in the past two years? Two awful coaching hires, trading two first round picks for Nash, consistent unsteadiness with their All-Star forward Gasol and of course losing Dwight to the Houston Rockets. The calming specter of Dr. Jerry Buss is no longer around, along with his sterling reputation of peerless decision making that once brought Kobe back from the brink of becoming a Clipper. The mystique of the Lakers has been shaken, perhaps irrevocably, and with it their impeccable record of ensuring players that their future was in good hands.
The question isn't just should James sign up to play without immediate help--it's also if he believes that Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak can get him the players he needs to succeed. If I'm LeBron, I'm not so sure that the Lakers are the same organization they were 24 months ago.
Dwight's absence not only robs the organization of a marketable star to lure potential future Lakers to LA, but also puts in to question just how effective this new regime is at selling themselves to a superstar. However, it's not set in stone that the Lakers' entire future is tied to whether or not James joins the team, if he even elects to leave Miami. Five and a half years ago, Kobe Bryant had a standing trade request, Kwame Brown was the starting center and Brian Cook had an NBA locker with his name on it. All of a sudden, the team had a 29-year-old Pau Gasol as their starting center in the Finals. Situations can change in a flash, especially ones that would look favorable to LeBron James. However, barring a miraculous trade unforeseen to the naked eye, a future with the greatest basketball player in the world in purple and gold is very difficult to envision.
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