A season that had so much promise has become a nightmare over in Los Angeles. Kobe Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers continue struggling to grasp how this team of elites has managed to lose so many games.
Moving forward, the entire Lakers organization should begin to wonder about Dwight Howard’s 2013 free agency, the impact it could have on the team and the possibility that Howard decides to leave Los Angeles.
Through 35 games, at 15-20, the Lakers are the No. 11 seed in the NBA’s Western Conference and a surprising four-and-a-half games behind the eighth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers. With their star-studded lineup, many expected Los Angeles to be a dominant team that could approach 70 regular season wins.
Now, before mid-January, we can rest assured that the Lake Show won’t even crack 60 wins.
It’s difficult to imagine Mike D'Antoni's team not making the playoffs, but with Howard’s torn labrum and Pau Gasol's concussion, the team could very well continue its losing ways in the coming weeks.
Who knows if this team, despite its talent level, will get it together? If it doesn’t, who knows whether that will even have an impact on Howard’s future in Los Angeles?
He is, after all, going to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2013.
The Lakers are all but certain to offer Howard the maximum allowable five-year deal worth about $118 million. The most any other team could offer him is a four-year deal worth roughly $88 million.
Under any circumstance, it would be difficult for an NBA player to walk away from an additional $30 million in guaranteed money, especially one who has yet to fully regain his dominant form following serious lower back surgery.
Historically, the Lakers have always been able to get their man, and Howard is just the latest example.
With their rich history, 16 NBA championships and the beautiful city of Los Angeles to call home, the Lakers have always been one of the more attractive teams in the league.
The idea of a franchise player leaving is difficult to imagine, particularly when doing so could cost him tens of millions of dollars.
Some of the sting of giving up the additional guaranteed money is taken away when you consider that it may actually be to Howard’s benefit to become a free agent in three years. In the summer of 2016, Howard will be 30 years old and could, in theory, sign one more max contract to bring him through the end of his career.
Yes, bolting the Lakers via free agency would be an expensive risk for Howard. But taking everything into account, it may be one he’s willing to take.
According to an article from RealGM.com, sources said Howard soured on the idea of teaming with Bryant after a February conversation between the two and that he wanted to be traded to the Brooklyn Nets or stay with Orlando. Although Howard ended up in Los Angeles, it's not hard to believe that he is now considering leaving.
This notion is especially true since the Lakers core—Bryant, Gasol, Metta World Peace and Steve Nash—are all on the downside of their respective careers. Not only that, but the foursome has an average age of over 34 years old.
Most who see Howard re-signing in Los Angeles as a no-brainer would probably point to the Lakers' ability to use the franchise’s history and the city's charm to lure free agents. However, the same mechanism that gives them an advantage in keeping Howard will make that more difficult under the new collective bargaining agreement.
Under the new deal, the difference between offers from an incumbent team and a free-agent team is substantial, and the sign-and-trade deals have become less advantageous to today’s players.
Moreover, after spending most of Bryant’s NBA career making deep playoff runs, the Lakers have had a dearth of late first-round draft picks. As a result, they don’t have the young, desirable players under contract that help facilitate trades.
In assembling its current cast of talent, the team has also traded its first-round draft pick for 2013, as well as additional picks in both 2015 and 2017.
Prior to being traded to the Purple and Gold, the NBA world assumed that with Nash, Bryant, Gasol and Howard, the Lakers would be a championship contender.
That same knowledge probably made it easier for Howard to accept the idea of playing a supporting role. But that’s something that he may think twice about should the Lakers fail to make the playoffs this season.
In this entire ordeal, the Atlanta Hawks may be the team to watch.
In this piece, I discussed the implications that the NBA’s new luxury tax could have on contenders, including the restriction that will be placed on teams that have a payroll above the threshold.
In short, teams that have a payroll that is $4 million higher than the luxury tax threshold will not be permitted to complete sign-and-trade deals, and that will limit the potential sign-and-trade market for Howard.
However, the Hawks won’t have any such problem. After being hired last June, general manager Danny Ferry immediately traded Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams and made the Hawks the No. 1 free-agency player for the summer of 2013.
For the 2013-14 season, the Hawks only have obligations to Al Horford, Lou Williams, DeShawn Stevenson and John Jenkins. This summer, Atlanta must make important decisions on both Josh Smith and Jeff Teague.
Smith will be an unrestricted free agent and may be one of the more coveted free agents on the market. After failing to negotiate an extension with Teague, the Hawks are expected to extend him a qualifying offer and make him a restricted free agent.
If that happens, in 2013, the Hawks will have the rare distinction of having a manageable payroll, tons of cap space and a group of young players and veterans that they could use in sign-and-trade arrangements.
They would have the flexibility to build around Howard, an emerging star big man in Horford for him to run with and draft picks to spare.
The biggest obstacle to his moving on will be the money. While contract disparities are often insurmountable, Atlanta will likely make Howard an enticing offer.
Unless the Lakers manage to purge payroll, as of July 1, they will no longer be permitted to receive a player who is signed and traded since they already have about $80 million in salary commitments for 2013-14.
That would preclude the Lakers from receiving either Smith or Teague in return for Howard. But, it would not stop the Hawks from attempting to facilitate a three- or four-team deal that could land them Howard while sending Los Angeles players they covet from other teams.
And under such a circumstance, Howard would not have to sacrifice any money.
Aside from the Hawks, the Mavericks could make a play for Howard if they managed to trade Shawn Marion’s $8.7 million salary. Howard is believed by some to have the Mavs at the top of his list if he decides to bolt.
Through January 10, with the Lakers at 15-20, it’s officially time to begin considering this scenario.
Now that we know it won't be a fairytale season for Los Angeles, it is no longer a certainty that Howard will re-up with the Lakers.
He has teammates that are on the decline and a head coach whose system isn't working. Worse yet, the NBA has a more restrictive CBA that may inhibit the Lakers' ability to build around him.
If the Lakers fail to make the playoffs, Howard might be best served taking a long, hard look to see if the grass is greener on the other side.