Mike D'Antoni, your chariot to the outskirts of Los Angeles awaits—if Dwight Howard wants it to.
There are no delusions when it comes to the L.A. Lakers. For the sake of winning now and having a superstar to build their future around, they need Howard to re-sign.
To make that happen, the Lakers must do whatever it takes, even if that includes severing all ties with D'Antoni. And according to Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com, that may be exactly what it takes:
Howard was one of several Lakers -- Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol being the most noteworthy—to have an extended separate meeting with the GM after his exit interview with both Kupchak and D'Antoni, multiple sources confirmed to ESPNLosAngeles.com.
According to sources with knowledge of the situation, part of the discussion between Howard and Kupchak centered around Howard's frustration with D'Antoni -- particularly how the center felt marginalized as the coach looked to Bryant and Steve Nash for leadership and suggestions and discounted Howard's voice.
Nothing against D'Antoni—I'm one of his biggest advocates—but if Howard is willing to abandon the Lakers because of him, he has to go.
Now, McMenamin adds that the relationship between the two is not irreparable. "It's not a, 'It's me or Mike,' situation for Dwight," a source told him.
But what if it becomes one? Dwight was deliberate when assessing the job D'Antoni did with the Lakers this season.
"We had to just sell out to whatever he wanted, whether we liked it or not," he said of D'Antoni following his exit interview (via McMenamin).
A mutual understanding doesn't appear to exist between the two, and it can't if Dwight feels D'Antoni is undervaluing him as a leader. If a happy medium cannot be established, the Lakers will be forced to make a decision.
And they'll have to choose Howard.
Which isn't to say that I, you or anyone else should condone the potential ultimatum. In an ideal world, Howard would understand that there are times when he has to submit to the coach's will and D'Antoni would make more of an effort to relate to his superstar big man.
This isn't a perfect world, though. The Lakers aren't a perfect team, Dwight is not the perfect player and D'Antoni is not the perfect coach.
Rifts happen. Sometimes they can be mended, other times they can't. When they can't, action must be taken. In this case, that would comprise of the Lakers ditching D'Antoni if they had to.
What Los Angeles is attempting to build is bigger than Magic Mike. Hell, it's bigger than Howard himself. But the latter is far more important to the cause.
Howard isn't just a part of the Lakers' future; he is their future. The Lakers cannot build around D'Antonil; there are only a handful of coaches that possess that kind of power, and he isn't one of them. Even if he was, Los Angeles wouldn't be able to justify retaining him if it meant Dwight would sign elsewhere.
Remember, the Lakers are at a crucial juncture in their development. Kobe Bryant isn't going to be around much longer. Pau Gasol is right behind him, and the 39-year-old Steve Nash isn't someone the Lakers can place future stock in either.
These Lakers are on the verge of a facelift. Their cosmetic makeup is going to change drastically. Soon enough, they'll be journeying into the unknown, a jaunt that becomes much more promising with Howard in hand.
There are any number of reasons we could find to justify the Lakers holding on to Howard at any expense—all of which are true.
He single-handedly carried the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009, and though still ringless, he's one of just four players in league history to average at least 18 points, 12 rebounds, one steal and two blocks per game through the first nine seasons of his career. The other three are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Elvin Hayes, all of whom are Hall of Famers.
Next time you find yourself being force-fed the notion that Howard isn't one of the greatest big men the league has ever seen, don't let your ego—or his, for that matter—prevent you from recognizing the truth: Dwight is a game-changer, one of the best ever.
His failure to obtain a ring doesn't matter. What he did in Orlando with the supporting cast he was given over those eight years is incredible. Few players could have found as much success as he did under those circumstances.
Our perception of the perpetually gleaming Howard is tainted by how he escaped from that environment. What he did was selfish, the manner in which he orchestrated his departure deplorable.
Beneath that smirky, self-absorbed exterior, though, beats the heart of championship pillar. Howard is someone who can emerge as the face of a winner and his oft-regrettable demeanor doesn't change this.
Should the Lakers bid Howard adieu, they aren't permitted to spend that $100 million-plus on anyone else. They have $78 million committed in payroll next season without him. If he walks, the Lakers are down one superstar and left without the means to acquire another one.
What if I told you none of that mattered? That Kobe's sixth ring and the Lakers' ability to contend next season wasn't a top priority? That this isn't about now?
You might be taken aback. But then again, the unabashed truth has that effect.
Retaining Howard isn't about Kobe getting his sixth ring, or even about contending next season. It's about continuing what has become a pastime for one of the most storied franchises in all of sports.
The Lakers are synonymous with winning. Seasons have been lost to subpar performances, but generally, they contend. Beyond next season, that tradition is in jeopardy without Howard.
Following the 2013-14 campaign, Bryant will be going on 36 and both he and Gasol will be free agents. In fact, Nash is the only Lakers player under contract for 2014 right now.
Free agents galore will be ripe for the picking next summer. Names like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade are expected to lead the field. With or without Howard, the Lakers will have the spending power to chase who they please. Without him, though, they become a tougher sell.
Los Angeles can't rest its hopes on the market selling itself. Howard's departure would serve as the ultimate proof of just this.
If it comes down to it, who should the Lakers keep, Mike D'Antoni or Dwight Howard?
No matter what history suggests, there's no guarantee that big names will flock to the Lakers—not when a building block isn't already in place.
Howard can be that foundation. It won't be Kobe's name that resonates with LeBron or anyone else, and it sure as heck won't be D'Antoni's.
"This organization has a precedent with that kind of a situation and I think we learned our lesson," Kupchak said of choosing a player over a coach (via McMenamin).
Their organization has also set what is often considered an unreachable standard. That paradigm will be difficult to uphold with Howard, but it will be almost impossible to champion without him.