Is It Time for LA Lakers to Slam Panic Button over Dwight Howard's Free Agency?

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Is It Time for LA Lakers to Slam Panic Button over Dwight Howard's Free Agency?
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

If you follow the Los Angeles Lakers (or any sliver of the NBA, for that matter), you're probably curious as to whether or not Dwight Howard will be back in Purple and Gold next season.

As are the Lakers themselves.

According to Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com, Howard has been chilling at his cabin in Lake Tahoe, Calif., trying to clear his head and think things over in anticipation of the biggest decision of his professional life. That has left everyone else to do the talking for him, anonymously and otherwise.

Per Ken Berger of CBSSports.com, Howard is intrigued by the opportunities to play with James Harden's Houston Rockets and Dirk Nowitzki's Dallas Mavericks, and he will entertain all offers that come his way.

There have also been whispers about friction between Howard and Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni, though general manager Mitch Kupchak doesn't seem to be too worried about that.

According to Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com, Kupchak said, "I think Dwight likes winning, he likes performing at a high level. I think he's fine with Mike D'Antoni, but I'm not really concerned if players like a coach, so I don't ask that question. Our coaches are evaluated by wins and losses."

Of course, the Lakers didn't do that much winning with D'Antoni this past season. L.A. went 40-32 with D'Antoni at the helm, but it did well to finish with a 28-12 record over its last 40 games and sneak its way into the No. 7 spot in the Western Conference. This, despite injuries to just about every player of consequence, forcing D'Antoni to reshuffle his rotation from night to night.

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But there appeared to be plenty of drama along the way. D'Antoni leaned much more heavily on the aging backcourt of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash for support, both in the locker room and in organizing on-court tactics.

Even though Dwight is purportedly the future of the franchise.

This isn't to suggest that D'Antoni was wrong to do so; if there's anything we learned from the "Dwightmare," it's that Howard can't exactly be counted on to provide the sort of leadership that winning teams need, particularly amid the sort of turmoil that the Lakers faced. 

Perhaps Howard would be a more dependable option as a purple-and-gold pied piper if/when he's returned to tip-top shape. He battled through the residual effects of a surgically repaired back that took quite some time to heal and might still be a bit gimpy.

Howard came back in time for the first day of training camp, albeit against the wishes of some who felt he'd have been better served taking another few months to get into proper playing shape, via Ramona Shelburne.

Nonetheless, Howard did his best to endear himself to the city of L.A.—with mixed results. He averaged a robust 18.4 points (on 57.8 percent shooting) with 13.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists after the All-Star break, per Basketball-Reference.

But the issue at hand isn't whether the Lakers and their fans want Howard to stay. Rather, it's whether he wants to spend the next five years of his career at the Staples Center. Chances are, Howard wants to win and would rather not hitch the rest of his athletic prime to a wagon that he doesn't feel can be pulled to the Promised Land.

That's precisely where the Lakers find themselves as the summer of 2013 approaches.

According to ShamSports, L.A. will be well over the luxury-tax threshold, even if Howard comes back. That likely leaves Kupchak with little more than the allure of a veteran's minimum contract, a spot on the roster of the NBA's most glorious franchise and the appeal of L.A. as a city with which to attract talent.

Unless the Lakers do something drastic (trade Pau Gasol; pressure Metta World Peace to opt out; AMNESTY KOBE?!), they won't have the necessary tools to revamp a roster that's old, injury-prone and defensively deficient.

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

That's not exactly the prettiest of pictures to paint for Howard.

A smart long-term plan would see the Lakers take a mulligan on next season—assuming the Jerry Buss-less ownership is willing to fork over gobs of cash to the rest of the league for one more year—and go all-in on the free-agent market in 2014. They'd only have only Nash's contract (and, perhaps, Howard's) clogging the cap.

Would Howard want to give up a pivotal year for that? Perhaps, but it doesn't help that Chuck Person, the Lakers assistant who often acted as Howard's buddy and buffer, wasn't invited back. Neither is it at all promising that Steve Clifford, whose relationship with Howard dates back to their days in Orlando, is a popular pick to land a head coaching job in time for the 2013-14 season.

It's no wonder, then, that Phil Jackson, in his infinite wisdom, thinks that Howard may well bolt for his third team in as many years, via Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times. The Lakers aren't likely to contend for a title with Howard next season, and D'Antoni's style doesn't quite fit his desire to be the go-to guy in the low post.

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To be sure, the Rockets and Mavs aren't all that much better-equipped to make Howard happy in the immediate future.

Houston plays a floor-spreading, pace-pushing, pick-and-roll style that's akin to what D'Antoni might try to implement in L.A. next season. As for Dallas, the Mavs are counting on an aging Dirk Nowitzki and (probably) a bunch of castoffs to rekindle the fire they rode to the Larry O'Brien Trophy two years ago.

But the prospect of paying far less in taxes in Texas has to entice Howard somewhat. And, NEWSFLASH: Whichever team winds up with Howard probably won't have the chops to unseat the Miami Heat just yet. And, ALSO NEWSFLASH: The Lakers can offer Howard approximately $30.4 million more than any other team over the course of a five-year deal.

If Howard doesn't flame out in his early 30s, he'll be as good a candidate as any to notch another veteran max deal. Playing elsewhere would allow him to re-up one year earlier and, in theory, expand his already impressive earning potential.

Make no mistake: Howard's decision won't be an easy one by any stretch. He'll probably enjoy the wine-and-dine recruiting trips he never got to experience as a high school kid, when everyone and their mother knew he was skipping college to go straight into the NBA draft.

Still, all the fancy food, jet travel and brown-nosing presentations on tap for the NBA's biggest free-agent-to-be won't make Howard any more or less likely to leave L.A. The Lakers still have the upper hand, thanks in no small part to all of the aforementioned factors at Kupchak's disposal.

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Howard's return is no slam dunk—even though legendary Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn invented the term—but if the choice is on par with Tiger Woods circa the early 2000s (i.e. choosing Tiger over the field at a major event), then the Woods-like Lakers still deserve the benefit of the doubt.

That is, unless/until Howard announces otherwise.

 

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