As the Los Angeles Lakers near the end of their season, they have the ability to control their own fate. Based on how this season turns out, there are a myriad of different routes the Lakers' front office can take going forward.
Despite Kobe Bryant's injury, the Lakers play a very winnable final game against the Houston Rockets. If they are able to defeat them, then the Utah Jazz won't be able to get any closer than a game behind the Lakers even if they win their next two.
With that being said, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol have been coming into their own as of late. While both are superior talents, they had never seemed to click playing together throughout the season.
Since returning from his injuries, Gasol has been a different kind of animal.
While shooting 53.5 percent from the field in his last five games, Gasol has acted as both a facilitator and a scorer during the Lakers' recent resurgence.
As Gasol flourished so has Howard, and the twin-tower dynamic they wanted to establish since the beginning of the season has started to come into its own.
However, whether or not they'll be able to continue working on their chemistry in subsequent seasons is up for debate, as the Lakers may go in drastically different directions.
If the Los Angeles Lakers get overtaken by the Utah Jazz, expect major changes to occur with the roster.
Of course, re-signing Dwight Howard remains a priority for the Lakers no matter what the outcome. However, they still have the ability to amnesty one of their contracts as well.
If the Lakers fail to make the playoffs, there'll be no point in keeping this core together. While they have shown progress prior to Kobe Bryant's injury, it is clear that trying to build the chemistry of an aging and degrading core may not be the smartest long-term decision.
Expect the Lakers to amnesty either Pau Gasol or Metta World Peace to make try and get under the luxury tax and hopefully sign some new talent in an all-out rebuilding process.
Even more drastically, don't be surprised if the Lakers choose to amnesty Bryant if his recovery takes longer than expected.
Bryant will not play for any other team besides the Lakers this season. This means that if they indeed choose to amnesty Bryant, expect him to either retire (which is highly unlikely) or re-sign for a more affordable deal once he is healthy.
Other than Howard, perhaps the player the Lakers would most want to re-sign from their crop of expiring contracts would be Earl Clark, who showed that he is a capable and versatile role player during his tenure this season.
Either way, the Lakers will be in for some more adversity and struggles via a rebuilding process should they fail to make the playoffs.
Barely inching into the playoffs and being eliminated in the first round is not much better than barely missing out on the playoffs for a team with huge expectations like these Lakers.
Thus, the resulting aftermath will be very similar as well.
However, making the playoffs and performing well down the stretch may mean that there is potential in their core.
Without Kobe Bryant for these playoffs, there is no telling how well they could have performed with Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard continuing to build chemistry.
Expect the Lakers to consider using their amnesty clause on Metta World Peace. Though Gasol is still an amnesty option, his rapport with Howard is very important in the core that the Lakers are trying to establish.
While a youth movement is to be expected, it's the Lakers size and the versatility they have in how to utilize both Gasol and Howard in the high and low posts that made them projected contenders at the start of the season.
While role players may shift and change around, the greatest change may be the loss of Metta World Peace.
Making the second round for a roster without Kobe Bryant is no joke. Thus, if the Los Angeles Lakers make it this far, expect the Lakers to do their absolute best to keep their core together.
While Metta World Peace may be inconsistent, there is no doubt that he is still perhaps the best perimeter defender on the roster.
The Lakers' biggest defensive weakness has always been the point guard position during the modern era. Dating back to Derek Fisher's last tenure with the Lakers, the big men in Los Angeles have always had to cover up for the defensive liabilities on the perimeter.
Therefore, the Lakers may be looking to shore up their perimeter.
Though Steve Nash may be a defensive liability, his $9,300,500 salary isn't too much of a burden to handle relative to the other contracts on the roster. Also, despite his defensive liabilities, a healthy Nash is still one of the best passers in the league.
Using the clause on Bryant may still be an option if they're able to ink Howard to a new contract.
Bryant can take his time and rehab, and with Howard as the new cornerstone, if Bryant were to re-sign with a discount, the Lakers will be able to build around the cornerstone while retaining the Black Mamba's services.
If the Los Angeles Lakers are able to make it to the NBA Western Conference Finals, it means that their core has a formula that works.
Furthermore, if they're able to do so without Kobe Bryant, then it is apparent that their late season surge to end the regular season has the potential to be a long-term, winning formula entering next season.
The Lakers would then be more willing to shell out more cash and possibly continue to keep above the luxury tax if it means bringing back a core that has taken them to the Conference Finals.
While Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark are both making a little over a million dollars, expect Jamison's price to stay roughly the same while Earl Clark may expect a pay raise if the Lakers were to try and re-sign him.
Re-signing those two and Dwight Howard will be key for the Lakers, and they may want to hold on to their amnesty clause in case the season goes south.
However, given the lengths they would have reached without Bryant, they will want to retain as much of this rotation as possible to give them a chance at seeing if they can win a title with a healthy Bryant.
If the Los Angeles Lakers make it to the NBA Finals, they must do everything in their power to retain both Gasol and Howard.
With Gasol under contract next season, using the amnesty clause on him would be out of the question. Re-signing Howard and starting his era as the franchise player would be imperative.
By reaching the finals, the Lakers show that the twin-tower dynamic between the two big men is adequate to build around. Thus, amnestying an injured Bryant to clear up cap space and sign some players long-term to build around Howard isn't out of the question.
Though loyalty to the Black Mamba may prevent the Lakers from making this decision, if Jim Buss really wants to carve his own legacy outside of his father's shadow, perhaps amnestying Bryant and starting fresh with Howard may be the best way for him to do so.
Thus, with a core that has proven it could get to the Finals and the use of the amnesty clause to get rid of Bryant's huge $30,453,000 contract, the Lakers would be more financially flexible while holding on to a core that has defied all expectations.