In either case, the Los Angeles Lakers start off with over $78.1 million under contract, which is already roughly $20 million over the salary cap.
However, a healthy Howard is worth the over five-year, $110 million investment the Lakers can make him. If Howard does choose to re-sign, roughly $20.4 million more will burden their salary cap, giving them very little room to maneuver for free agents.
Assuming the Lakers are willing to reach the $100.1 million plateau they had reached for the 2012-2013 season, re-signing Howard will give them roughly $2 million to work with.
With potentially eight players under contract going into next season excluding Howard, the Lakers are going to have to use that $2 million to acquire three more role players.
To further complicate things, Kobe Bryant may or may not be a factor next season due to his Achilles tendon injury, meaning a fourth player may be needed to come off of the bench.
However, the only player under contract after next season would be Steve Nash. Assuming Howard has signed a five-year deal, the Lakers can choose to retain their amnesty clause and sign journeymen and veteran free agents such as Tracy McGrady and others to tide them over for a season before they can completely rebuild during the 2014 offseason.
In any case, with Bryant set to come off of the books after next season, re-signing the Black Mamba at a discount will be a top priority for the Lakers heading into the 2014-2015 season if Bryant doesn't choose to retire.
This way, the Lakers retain the amnesty clause, bring back the same core this year (minus Bryant for at least a significant portion of the season) with optimistic hopes that health will be in their favor and have the chance to completely rebuild and restructure the Lakers around Howard as the foundation following next season.
To re-sign Howard, the Lakers' management need to stress that Howard can make more money in L.A. than in any other city. On top of that, it is paramount that Howard understands that the Lakers may struggle during the 2013-2014 season due to the fact that they are bringing back an aging and injury-prone core, minus role players such as Earl Clark and Antawn Jamison.
However, in the case that Howard does not choose to re-sign with the Lakers, they will have to sign free agents that shore up their weaknesses and hope that their inevitable struggles will yield a bountiful crop of drafted players.
Assuming that Howard does not re-sign, the Lakers will have gaping defensive holes in the paint and on the perimeter. They will have to reasonably fill these holes while sitting over $20 million above the salary cap.
At 31 years old, Tony Allen may be a little old for the Lakers to start rebuilding around. However, his tenacious defense and tendency to hit his open shots make him a valuable option.
Perhaps the riskiest option for the Lakers would be to sign J.R. Smith. His struggles during the New York Knicks' current series with the Indiana Pacers' show that he may not be comfortable under the glare or criticism and the national media spotlight.
Furthermore, his erratic shooting and ball-dominating tendencies may clash with Bryant once he returns.
Despite the drawbacks, he is a proven scorer and athlete and was one of the the Knicks' best perimeter defenders.
If J.R. Smith consents to being a third option behind Pau Gasol (who has proven that he still has a lot left in the tank when healthy) and Bryant (should he choose not to retire and to re-sign at a discount during the 2014-2015 season), he will be able to score with less pressure while defending the opposition's best perimeter threat.
He will definitely be in for a raise from the close to $3 million he was paid this season, but should be worth the investment if the rewards outweigh the risks.
To attempt to fill in the gaping hole left by Howard's absence, the Lakers should consider signing Nikola Pekovic to a long-term contract.
Like Smith, Pekovic has played his way to a significant raise from the close to $5 million he was paid this season.
However, with a core of Smith and Pekovic, who are both 27 years old, the Lakers will have two young players who would complement Gasol, Bryant and Steve Nash well.
Though they will still struggle to make the playoffs, signing these two should tide them through until 2014-2015, which would allow them to construct a team that would work well around a core of Smith, Pekovic and a potentially healthy and motivated veteran in the Black Mamba.
In terms of the coach, it is clear that if Howard is to re-sign with the Lakers, the Lakers will need to replace Mike D'Antoni. However, if the Lakers choose not to re-sign Howard, they could potentially keep D'Antoni and build a team to fit his system.
Bryant has proven this season that he can be an extremely effective playmaker. As his career winds down, he can be more of a facilitator than a scorer.
With that being said, Pekovic's interior presence and versatility should allow him to anchor the paint and play the pick-and-roll with Bryant.
This should allow the Lakers to bolster this pick-and-roll tandem with shooters that complement J.R. Smith and work well in D'Antoni's run-and-gun offense, should they choose to go that route.
If the Lakers do re-sign Howard, they will need a coach (such as Phil Jackson) who knows how to utilize big men in the post, that understands the egos and personalities of the roster and is flexible enough to make adjustments.
D'Antoni has proven during his run with the Knicks and this season with the Lakers that he is too enamored with his run-and-gun system to forsake it, too proud and stubborn to manage the personalities on his roster and their talent base.
By alienating Gasol early in the season and refusing to play Howard and Gasol together for the majority of the season (barring injury) despite the fact that their tandem was a major reason for the Lakers' late-season push, D'Antoni exhibits all of the previously mentioned deficiencies.
However, his tenure with the Phoenix Suns shows that winning basketball can still be produced in his system, and the Lakers have the ability to recreate that system should they choose to not re-sign Howard.
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