Los Angeles Lakers Have No Choice but to Gamble on Dwight Howard's Future

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Los Angeles Lakers Have No Choice but to Gamble on Dwight Howard's Future
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Sorry to break it to you, Los Angeles Lakers fans, but you're stuck with Dwight Howard.

General manager Mitch Kupchak reiterated his commitment to the All-Star center during an appearance on The Herd with Colin Cowherd on ESPN Radio (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com):

Dwight is our future. Kobe [Bryant] has one more year on his deal [this year, plus one]. That's all I can bank on or this organization can bank on. I have no idea if he wants to continue to play beyond next year. As of now, we're looking at a two-year window, [and that] plays to the urgency of the situation and how we build the team. ... This team's window to win is this year and next year.

Then, Kupchak came right out with it:

We've been very consistent. We're not trading Dwight Howard...He will not be traded, and there's nothing that anybody can do today to call me today and ask me, "Would you do this?" and get a positive result.

Then, just in case anyone twisted his words the first two times, Kupchak made himself perfectly clear:

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

It's hard to get talent in this league, and to have a talent like Dwight Howard, we have no intention of trading Dwight Howard. He belongs to have his name on the wall [as a retired uniform] and a statue in front of Staples [Center] at some point in time.

So, yeah, it looks like the Lakers are going to cast their lot with Dwight Howard, for better or worse.

As well they should, if for no other reason than the potential alternatives aren't any better. The Lakers are set to be knee-deep in luxury-tax territory until the summer of 2014, with or without Howard.

They're already on the hook for nearly $80 million in salaries for 2013-14, which, barring some unforeseen (and monumental) jump in the league-wide cap figures, will leave L.A. with few means by which to reshape and improve the existing roster.

But the Lakers own Howard's Bird Rights, which means they can re-sign him despite their current cap crunch. Thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, the Lakers can also offer Howard approximately $30 million more over the course of a five-year deal than any other potential suitor can as part of a four-year pact.

It's no wonder that the organization remains so confident in its ability to convince Howard to re-up in July. If he wants to play somewhere else, he'll have to give up the pay, the prestige, the sun, the fun, the glitz and the glamor that comes with playing in the City of Angels for the NBA's most popular franchise.

And considering how spineless Howard has seemingly been in his dealings over the past year-and-a-half, it's hard to imagine him going out on a limb to leave L.A.

There's no need, then, for the Lakers to panic now, no need to dump Howard for pennies on the dollar.

Unless, of course, another team comes along with a strong (if not Godfather-ish) offer to take him and his headache-inducing demeanor off the Lakers hands. According to Ken Berger of CBSSports.com, there may be one team with the cojones to make the call:

Berger's unclear as to whether the Atlanta Hawks would go after the hometown hero via trade when they could have the requisite cap space with which to work out a sufficient deal with him after the season.

And if the Hawks manage to retain Josh Smith and Anthony Morrow, who just so happen to be two of Howard's closest friends, their chances of landing the summer's biggest Peach State product figure to improve.

If Atlanta is keen to ease the agony of a free-agent chase with a midseason trade, it could offer the Lakers a package centered on Al Horford and Kyle Korver. The former is an All-Star in his own right and could man either frontcourt position (and play next to Pau Gasol when he returns), while the latter is just the sort of shooter L.A. needs to spread the floor in Mike D'Antoni's pick-and-roll offense.

Of course, there's been no indication that the Hawks are willing to part ways with Horford, and there's been plenty affirming the Lakers' active disinterest in trading Howard.

To be sure, it's easy to see why so many in Lakerland are reluctant to accept Howard as the future of their beloved franchise. He burned so many bridges while extricating himself from the Orlando Magic and, as such, remains a danger to do so again in L.A.

He's used the media as a mouthpiece rather than handling his business behind closed doors. He's yet to demonstrate the sort of leadership and consistent on-court excellence that the Lakers expect from their superstars.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Lakers past and present—from Magic Johnson and James Worthy to Rick Fox and even Kobe Bryant—haven't exactly been eager to praise Howard for his efforts this season.

The relationship between Bryant and Howard in particular has come under intense scrutiny. They've sniped at each other through the media and (allegedly) were none too buddy-buddy during All-Star weekend in Houston.

At least, not on the level that Bryant and Andrew Bynum were in Orlando in 2012.

In any case, it appears as though Kobe and Howard don't get along as well as a team would hope its two best players would. Combine that clash of egos with Howard's lackluster play on both ends of the floor and his apparent (and perhaps justified) dissatisfaction over his current role under Mike D'Antoni, and it's easy to see why he's not exactly the most popular figure in town these days.

But before the angry pitchfork-and-torch mob shows up at the steps of the Staples Center demanding Howard's ouster, keep in mind that the guy isn't struggling just because he doesn't "want" to be in Los Angeles anymore. He's been battling all season through the lingering effects of back surgery from last April and a torn labrum in his shoulder.

Considering how much of Howard's past success had been predicated on his superior physical prowess, that is an issue. He's done more to develop and refine his skills over the years than some give him credit for, but he remains both a champion and a captive of his own body.

At present, that body's condition is far from peak, which in turn means that Howard's effectiveness sits well below the ideal.

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Kupchak's words indicate the Lakers' belief in Howard's eventual recovery and return to his old form. They see a physical specimen who, at 27 years of age, is still young enough to bounce back from the first major injury of his NBA career.

They also see a player who, despite his present limitations, is leading the league in rebounding and is scoring 16.4 points per game on 58.3 percent shooting from the field.

As such, if the Lakers intend to maximize the remainder of Kobe's twilight (if it can be called that) and smooth the transition into a Mamba-less future, they'd be wise to see what Howard has to offer when he's fully fit and settled into his current surroundings. They owe it to themselves and to the fans to see what these superstars can do when they're together and healthy at the same time.

Because, realistically, the Lakers have yet to be so fortunate. Between Howard's issues, Steve Nash's nagging leg problems, Gasol's knees and feet and whatever maladies Kobe has kept under wraps all season, these Lakers have looked like something closer to Roseanne Roseannadanna's worst nightmare than an NBA title contender.

Their 26-29 record bears that out. Barring some sort of second-half miracle, there will be no parade down Figueroa Street this June, no Larry O'Brien Trophy added to the collection, no championship banner hung to honor the memory of the late Dr. Jerry Buss.

But there might be next year. Suppose Kobe continues to play at a high level at the age of 35. Suppose he and Nash concoct a steadier backcourt chemistry with the aid of time. Suppose Gasol heals up and finds his niche or is shipped out over the summer for pieces that better fit D'Antoni's vision.

And suppose Howard signs on the dotted line, works his tail off over the summer and comes back ready to dominate like he did during his days in Orlando, when 20-15 games were more the norm than the exception.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Those parts, when sewn together properly, could make for a scary, title-contending whole. Once Howard gets a taste of that sweetest of nectars, who knows what he'll be capable of?

Maybe, just maybe, the trials, tribulations and eventual triumph will awaken him to his own true potential and set him on a path toward the type of leadership that's defined the superstars of Lakers lore.

That's all a long way off, though. For now, it's imperative that the Lakers ride out this storm like they have every other that's been drummed up in years past: with patience and confidence in what the future holds for the NBA's most charmed entity.

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