The Los Angeles Lakers are at a crossroads. There are a handful of directions the team could go in this offseason, and most of them aren't pretty.
From ownership on down to the last man on the Lakers bench, there is a question mark sitting just above each and every one of them.
Change at the top (Jim Buss), old age (Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Metta World Peace, Steve Blake—all over 30), injuries galore, a head coach with dismal playoff results...Shall we go on?
Like Wheel of Fortune, the Lakers will spin the big wheel as hard as they can and hope it lands on the magic formula that spells serious contender in 2013-14.
It certainly won't be easy, and this offseason is one of the most important in franchise history. It could go either way.
It starts with a failure to lock up center Dwight Howard for five years at the max salary level. Losing the game's most dominant big man just entering the prime of his NBA career would be a blow not only to the team's future chances at a title, but a kick in the collective gut to ownership and its fans.
Howard is taking his time to decide his future (via L.A. Times):
"I'm going to take my time and get away from my phone and everything and just clear my head," Howard said after the Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs last week. "I think I deserve that right and that's what I'm going to do."
After failing to secure Chris Paul in the infamous "deal, no deal" of December 2011, the Lakers set their sights on getting Howard into a Lakers uniform last summer. To say the team pulled off another amazing steal of a deal would be an understatement.
Even with D12's season-long recovery from back surgery, the team saw major glimpses of the old Dwight, most noticeably during the final two months of the campaign.
Howard's numbers after the All-Star break: in 28 games, he averaged 18.4 points and 13.6 rebounds in 37.4 minutes per game. In March, D12 averaged 15.2 rebounds and almost three blocks while in the last eight games of the season. In April, his point total shot up to 20.9 on 61 percent accuracy from the field.
A worst-case scenario continues if Pau Gasol doesn't rebound from offseason knee surgery that he's about to undergo and/or the Lakers trade or amnesty him.
In the absence of Howard, the Lakers would lean heavily on Gasol at the center position and need him to be close to 100 percent. At 33, the 7'0" Spaniard cannot afford another slow start similar to the one he just went through in 2012.
Kobe Bryant (remember him?) will work harder than anyone to get himself back on the court following surgery to repair his torn Achilles. But what if the Achilles is not cooperating? Then what?
What is the best-case scenario for the Lakers this off season?
With Howard gone, Gasol hobbled and Kobe a big question mark, the Lakers could find themselves very thin before October training camp even rolls around. And no one knows how Steve Nash will look come October—he is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career, primarily due to injuries. And he's knocking on the 40 door next February.
The Lakers are counting on the return of a healthy Jordan Hill, but that remains a big question as well. And, though he'll make a difference in the lineup, Jordan Hill is no Gasol, Howard, Bryant or Nash.
A BEST-CASE SCENARIO
It does not involve using the amnesty clause on Kobe Bryant, despite what 48 percent of an L.A. Times poll found.
In a perfect world, the Lakers of 2013-14 look like this: Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash—all return healthy for a full season together. They use the amnesty clause on the ailing Metta World Peace, which would save the team around $30 million in luxury taxes.
The Lakers would still have a bloated payroll, but the wish is that management bites the bullet for one more season, knowing that in 2014, most of their salaries will come off the books and they will be a position to make a play for at least one major free agent.
Let's face facts—despite a payroll that could balloon to as much as $185 million next season, the Lakers will still make money. Unless people have forgotten, the Buss family is receiving about $4 billion over the next 20 years in television money from the Time Warner Cable deal.
That equates to roughly $200 million a year and, even if the team has to pay out some of that to other clubs in the league's version of revenue sharing, the fact is that the Lakers will not fold next year. They could pay Dwight, Pau, Kobe and Nash, and not fall apart.
But realistically, if the Lakers sign Dwight Howard to a max contract, chances increase that Gasol may be the one to go. And the most likely scenario would be via amnesty.
As much as that move would upset his biggest supporter—Kobe Bryant—cutting Gasol could save the team upwards of $60 million in luxury tax. If another team bids on Gasol's services, they would probably owe the Lakers millions, which would also help defray some of that $19.3 million in salary the 7-footer would be due.
Another best case situation would have Phil Jackson returning to the Lakers in some sort of management capacity. Howard has not been shy about his desire to learn under the Zen Master. But that, too, will probably not happen.
Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak have repeatedly said Mike D'Antoni is their man. The coach himself is so confident he'll be back, he went out and plucked down almost $7 million for a new house in Manhattan Beach (via L.A. Times).
Assuming that most or all of the big four return to the Lakers, the biggest question mark then becomes depth. And how to address that with a balloon payroll that goes to just a few starters.
Even if the Lakers dump MWP and say goodbye to Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks, Chris Duhon and Earl Clark, they'll need better replacements. Especially good perimeter shooters. Such as Kyle Korver.
The 32-year-old, nine-year veteran who grew up down the road in Lakewood, CA, should be the Lakers' number one target. He'd probably have to take a pay cut to play in Los Angeles, but with no rings and a chance to be a part of a Howard-Bryant-Nash title contender, Korver could be persuaded to join the purple and gold in the off season.
A career 42 percent shooter from beyond the arc, Korver improved on that to 46 percent this season while averaging 10.9 ppg in 30.5 minutes with the Atlanta Hawks.
The Lakers will find ways to bring in several more free agents to round out their roster. Don't be surprised if Lamar Odom shows up at camp in October, and don't count out developing players like Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock, who, when given the chance by D'Antoni, showed they were more than capable on both ends of the court.
If nothing else, this Lakers offseason will not be boring.