- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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The prevailing thought surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers this offseason is that they are at the mercy of Dwight Howard’s decision to stay or go. That may be true, but there are many more decisions for general manager Mitch Kupchak and vice president of player personnel Jim Buss to make that will shape the direction of the franchise.
Even if Howard chooses to re-sign in L.A., which the Lakers have said is their hope and desire, there are still many more dominoes to fall.
In fact, the roster could very likely end up looking more like last season’s team if Howard leaves rather than if the All-Star center stays.
Here are four ways it could all play out, focusing on what L.A. does with its twin towers:
1. Lakers sign Howard and keep Pau Gasol
Also unofficially known as “The Kobe Bryant Plan” because it was the scenario Bryant called for to the media after his exit interview, this would involve the Lakers essentially going all-in for a second straight season with the belief that a hefty luxury tax fee would be worth it in order to win another championship before Bryant retires. While Bryant has dubbed his comeback from a torn Achilles in his left leg “The Last Chapter,” a source told ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Ramona Shelburne that Bryant wants "two more cracks at it to win seven NBA titles at least." Meaning that next season, which will be a physically and mentally taxing one for Bryant as he plays through injury, is unlikely to be his last. It also means that there could be less of an incentive for the Lakers' front office to pay so much to put that product on the floor, knowing that 2014-15 could really be the right time to make a push.
If the Lakers kept everything intact as it was last season, their payroll would be in the range of $100 million, which would bring an additional $80 million owed in a big, fat luxury tax check to the league at the end of the season. The only way it would be worth it is if the Lakers ended up lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season and tying the rival Boston Celtics with 17 rings.
The thing is, the Lakers -- as they were constructed last season -- hardly showed they were championship caliber. They may have finished the season 28-12 to make the playoffs, but they struggled against elite teams all season and furthermore, coach Mike D’Antoni never found an optimum way to showcase Howard and Gasol on the floor at the same time. In terms of priorities, the Lakers place far more value on the 27-year-old Howard than the soon to be 33-year-old Gasol. But it is still unclear how much priority Howard puts on remaining a Laker; it’s been reported he also has interest in Houston, Dallas, Golden State, Atlanta, Cleveland and the L.A. Clippers.
2. Lakers sign Howard and trade Gasol
This seemed like a pretty likely scenario as recently as a couple months ago. Howard was finally healthy and meshing with the Lakers and L.A. was winning games because of it, and there had been no hint from management that they would be willing to pay out the nose for a second straight season under the more punitive rules of the new collective bargaining agreement.
Gasol has been on the trade block, in essence, since December 2011 when the Lakers tried to ship him out in a three-team deal to acquire Chris Paul. While Gasol had a down year overall (career-lows of 13.7 points on 46.6 percent shooting while dipping to 8.6 rebounds per game), he should still demand some trade attention as a skilled 7-footer with championship experience who actually showed he still had some elite basketball left in him (three triple doubles in the last seven games of the season). Add in that Gasol’s $19.3 million contract is expiring, and L.A. is sure to find potential suitors.
One thing to be aware of, because the Lakers would be considered above the “tax apron” of the new CBA by re-signing Howard, they would not be able to receive a player via sign and trade. To put it more clearly, the Lakers could shop Gasol for a player already under contract (i.e. Kevin Love in Minnesota), but would not send him out for a player who is a free agent who would then sign with his former team and come to L.A. with a trade immediately afterward (i.e. Monta Ellis in Milwaukee).
This limits the pool of players the Lakers could pursue if they choose to trade Gasol (other than Ellis, there are big names like Andre Iguodala, Josh Smith and Paul out there) and could motivate the Lakers to hold on to him, or on the other end of the spectrum, maybe even use their one-time amnesty provision on him to get out from his contract if they don’t find any attractive deals out there.
3. Lakers trade Howard and keep Gasol
The Lakers have made it clear that it is not their intention to help push Howard out the door, but if Howard comes to them after July 1 and says he doesn’t want to stay, L.A. will have no choice but to consider it. While the Lakers can’t receive a player via a sign and trade because of their cap position, they can send out a player this way so they would be able to sign Howard to a four-year, $87.6 million deal and trade him (Howard can only receive the full five-year, $118 million if he stays a Laker). Then it becomes a question of what L.A. could get for him. Would the crosstown Clippers really give up both Blake Griffin and Eric Bledsoe? What if it was DeAndre Jordan and Bledsoe? If the Warriors make an offer centered around either Klay Thompson or Harrison Barnes, does the Lakers’ interest perk up? What about Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin from Houston?
Part of running an NBA team is being in the business of acquiring assets. Clearly, the Lakers don’t want to part with a player like Howard might be the second best two-way player in the game behind LeBron James. They want him to become the next great center to follow in the footsteps of George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal. But if Howard has no interest in that, you would have to think L.A. would want to receive something in return -- draft picks or young talent, if not another All-Star player -- than have him walk and leave the Lakers with nothing to show for it.
4. Lakers let Howard walk and keep Gasol
This play would be all about keeping the books clear for 2014-15. The Lakers would enter next season with a core of Bryant, Gasol and Steve Nash, which they were comfortable as their plan for next season until Howard finally fell in their laps in August. Add in a couple of heady free-agent acquisitions -- picking up a guy like Francisco Garcia for the mini mid-level, or someone like Brandan Wright or Donte Greene for the minimum -- and with a stroke of good luck when it comes to health and the Lakers would still be competitive in 2013-14 while setting up for a major revamp the following season.
In ’14-15, seemingly the whole NBA world can become available for free agency, starting with the league’s crown jewel in James, but also other franchise-type players in Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Currently, the only player the Lakers have under contract beyond next season is Nash, meaning if Bryant agrees to a much more reasonable extension than the $30.4 million he’ll make next season, the Lakers could have their Hall of Fame backcourt of Nash and Bryant for 2014-15 along with two other max-level free agents to try to go for the title. Plus, Gasol could stay on board as well if he was willing to take a major pay cut down to mini mid-level territory as well.
There are many moving parts at work here -- a player’s whim, a team’s plan, the league’s rules, etc. What happens with Howard will affect what happens with Gasol. What happens with Gasol will affect what happens with Metta World Peace. Right on down the line. Every decision the team's brass makes will not only have an impact on the immediate future, but will also shape the team's direction -- for better or for worse -- for years to come.
1dMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne