And while the 2012-13 season has been one of the most trying in franchise history—ripe with unceremonious firings, in-fighting and crippling injuries—the offseason may be even more dysfunctional.
Not only does the team have to worry about the uncertain future of Kobe Bryant, but also Dwight Howard's contract situation that continues to linger. If Bryant's Achilles injury is like a heartbreaking earthquake that shatters the foundation of your home, Howard departing would be the bulldozer that plows the entire thing down.
Last we heard, the future looked promising for Howard coming back long-term. USA Today's Sam Amick reported that two sources close to the situation said Howard was planning to re-sign with the Lakers, his eventual visits to other teams a mere formality.
However, the source himself continues to be coy about his future. When asked Saturday about his offseason plans, the Lakers center evaded the question.
"I haven't thought about it," Howard said (via ESPN's Dave McMenamin).
We'll steer clear of accusations about the truthfulness of that statement—libel suits being something I don't like—it's safe to say plenty of others within his camp have given Howard's move some careful thought. And if they're smart, his camp won't stop thinking until it's weighed the risk of every possible outcome.
If we're playing NBA 2K13, Howard re-signs with the Lakers and doesn't even give it a second thought. Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol all are on the payroll for next season. Those names alone had many pointing to the Lakers as an NBA championship contender when Howard was first acquired. How could you go wrong with four Hall of Famers?
Of course, we now have the benefit of knowing just how wrong things could go.
Nash has been so bad this season and been injured so often that many have speculated he should retire, though the Lakers point guard debunked those rumors last week. Gasol and Howard were a mess together for the first half of the season, with both playing like they've never seen another seven-footer before. Gasol could be traded this offseason, but there's no guarantee the haul Los Angeles gets for him would be a better fit.
And then there's Kobe. Though the relationship between Howard and Bryant seemed to improve as the season progressed, it's safe to say there was discord between the two at least through the All-Star break. So, including Howard in a laundry list of players, it's pretty safe to say playing basketball with Kobe Bryant isn't exactly a trip to Disney World.
How will Howard and Kobe react to each other next season? You know, when Bryant is trying to recover from a debilitating Achilles injury that leaves his entire career up in the balance? Bryant is expected to miss six to nine months, with the latter being far more likely for someone of his age and wear and tear.
Even if Bryant missing extra time helps avoid conflict between the two stars (one declining, the other trying to assert his dominance), it sure as hell won't help the Lakers as a basketball team.
The version of this Lakers roster with Bryant could have posed some threat to San Antonio in Round 1. The version without Bryant has been an atrocity on offense, full of nonexistent spacing and role players who should have been taken out to pasture a long time ago.
All you need is this video to show just how miserable life has been for Howard this postseason.
The Spurs have the advantage of collapsing a bevy of bodies on Howard because they don't respect the Lakers' shooters. If Darius Morris wants to take wide-open threes, have at it, bucko. While a returning and healthy Nash would obviously help spacing next season, those are the types of things Howard is looking at on a Kobe-less Lakers team barring major changes.
And without two pennies to rub together to spend on the open market—the Lakers are already a luxury tax team next season even without Howard's extension factored in—those changes will be extremely hard.
Juxtapose that with Howard's best secondary option, the Houston Rockets. Though Houston will have to do some cap reconfiguration to make a maximum contract happen for Howard—which won't be that hard—it represents arguably the best basketball fit for the 27-year-old center. (Atlanta and Dallas are also considered contenders, but Howard wouldn't be walking into a great situation in either city.)
Not only do the Rockets have a second superstar in James Harden, but they also have a bevy of young shooters that fit perfectly with Howard. His best teams with the Magic ran a four-out, one-in spread offense that's very similar to what Houston runs now. It's a burgeoning group of young talent that looks one superstar away from being one of the three best teams in the Western Conference.
Can we say the same thing about the Lakers at this point? Doubtful.
It's true that Los Angeles can offer one thing Houston cannot: $30 million worth of guarantees. Under the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, the Lakers can offer a five-year contract worth a maximum of $117.9 million. The Rockets can offer a max of four years and $87.8 million.
That's a ton of money and is safely lingering over Howard's head—but it's not as much as one may think. Any contract Howard signs will almost certainly have an early termination option, one which Howard will exercise barring injury (e.g. LeBron James' almost-certain opt-out in 2014).
When LeBron James and Chris Bosh signed with Miami in 2010, we all know that everyone's first reaction was chaos. Jerseys were burned, tables were pounded on by pundits and one of the more unnecessary celebrations in humankind history took place. We're all (thankfully) beyond that idiocy now, but the widespread scorn over the Heat's new Big Three overshadowed one notable thing we can use concerning Howard: The theory that they "took less money" to sign with Miami.
The reality was Bosh and James did not take less money. They were leaving Ohio and Canada for Florida, a state without any income tax. By signing with Houston (or Dallas), Howard would be doing the same thing.
Assuming that Howard signs a maximum contract (which he will), here is a look at how much he'll pay in California state income tax over the next four years (courtesy of HOOPSWORLD'S Bill Ingram):
|Year||California State Tax|
By Ingram's math, Howard would actually be making more money with Houston over the first four years than with Los Angeles. In essence, Howard's "extra" $30 million he'd get with the Lakers is little more than a security blanket—one he'll quickly discard for a new long-term contract if his level of play stays at its current rate.
The likeliest scenario remains Howard re-signing with the Lakers. Dwight turning his back on a guaranteed $30 million would be one of the more unprecedented moves in league history, setting a scary precedent that the NBAPA wouldn't look too fondly at. Even LeBron and Bosh, for all of their "taking less money" talk, still got six years in guaranteed money from Miami. Howard would get just four—the Lakers aren't signing and trading him.
And lest we forget Howard's long-standing desire to play in a large market. He sacrificed his once-sterling reputation with fans to make that happen, bastardizing his relationship with the Orlando Magic franchise (see Tobias Harris' jersey number) and making him infinitely less marketable in the process. Criticisms of his style of play have never been higher, with the fact he had major back surgery about a year ago deemed irrelevant.
If Howard skips town after one miserable season with the Lakers? He'd instantly become the most hated player in the NBA—and that's if he already isn't. Howard would be abandoning a franchise that's trying to give him everything he said he wanted in order to scamper out of the spotlight.
These are non-basketball factors, but they weigh in heavily. LeBron would likely leave Cleveland for Miami if he had a second chance, but he'd never do The Decision again. Howard's yearlong exit from Orlando was a more annoying, petulant version of James' exit from Cleveland—as if ESPN gave The Decision: Dwight Howard a full 22-episode order.
Where should Dwight Howard sign this offseason?
All of those factors point toward Howard staying, taking a contract with an early termination option and calling it a day. It's an understandably safe strategy we see every offseason. And if (when) Howard re-ups with the Lakers, we shouldn't even give it a second glance—this is the NBA's collective bargaining agreement at work.
But if Howard is able to push those mental images of burning jerseys and rampant media criticism aside, he'll see that a team like Houston represents an opportunity. To be a co-pilot, not clearly second in command. To be in a major media market, but one without 24/7 scorn. To be a part of a championship contender without paying a dime of state income tax.
These factors might not be enough to make Howard walk away from one of the league's two most storied franchises. But they're enough that he needs to give the thought some serious consideration.