Dwight Howard holds the financial future of the Los Angeles Lakers in his oversized palms. Shaquille O'Neal, former Laker great at Howard's position, called Dwight out as if he's already made a decision (via Arash Markazi of ESPN). However, his mind is far from clear.
That presents us with two monetary options to explore what moves the Lakers have on the table.
One, spend hundreds of millions to retain their broad-shouldered center and be otherwise limited. Two, maximize Pau Gasol's final year and add young athleticism via free agency and the draft. All spending should be responsible with respect to the preparation for 2014 free agency.
Howard will command a maximum contract wherever he lands, but holding Dwight's Bird Rights—essentially a veteran exception that Dwight earned for longevity in Orlando with the Magic and brought with him via trade to Los Angeles—allows the Lakers to offer him the longest deal and thus the most money. He would command five years and earn $118 million if he chose to don Purple and Gold.
Doing so would severely limit the potential of ensuing free agency signings in 2013. Before any more moves, the Lakers of 2013-14 would owe Dwight $23.6 million on top of an already guaranteed $78.187 million to previously signed players. Among the lofty contracts are Kobe Bryant's $30.453 million, Pau Gasol's $19.286 million and Metta World Peace's $7.727 million assuming he picks up his player option.
Given that the NBA salary cap is set to be at $58.5 million, Los Angeles will exceed it regardless of Howard's decision. Paying the luxury tax, for which the bar is set at $70.307 million, will only continue to grow more expensive (via Jason Patt of SBNation)
Still, Kupchak seems convinced that No. 12 is the future. Take it from Mitch (per Mike Trudell of NBA.com):
"We would try to do what the other teams will do, which is convince him that this is the spot for him. I think we have an advantage in that he's played here for a year."
Kupchak understands the unpredictable nature of the client he is dealing with, but in my opinion has yet to find real reason to remain attached to his star big man. The Lakers will be better loaded financially to complete a quick rebuild by the end of 2014 including drafts and free agencies.
While I believe Dwight still has some of his best ball ahead of him, he may find a spark in new territory.
Elsewhere, the Houston Rockets (or Dallas Mavericks?) could offer Howard a four-year deal worth $88 million and a renewed course. All respect to Mark Cuban and Dirk Nowitzki down south, but something about Dwight running the floor with James Harden gives me goosebumps. Additionally, Houston holds significant financial advantage for Dwight in that he wont have his individual games taxed as in L.A. (h/t Forbes' Tony Nitti).
If D12 decides not to be the lead singer of his Hollywood band, he could thrive in a de-pressurized market in Houston and compete for titles with Harden. His defensive prowess in the key still had room to grow before his back and shoulder injuries bar him from complete domination. He still looked to be getting used to the improved speed and athleticism of an NBA talent pool quickly adapting.
Howard to Houston would still leave the Lakers over the salary cap and sweating out big money deals to high-caliber veterans in their twilight. But from a front office perspective, the loss of Dwight returns an uninhibited chance to land a new core in 2014. At that point, the Lakers only guarantee $9.701 million and all of it to a player in Steve Nash who will turn 41 years old by contract's end.
Where they'll be in 14 months still requires a good amount of speculation, as this year's free agency and draft will be a telling time for the Lakers' future foundation. As for this year, they currently hold pick No. 48 in the 2013 NBA Draft, good for a mid-second round selection.
If feeling gutsy, the Lakers could trade up a bit and reach for Tim Hardaway Jr. in the first round. Hardaway chose to leave Michigan in favor of going pro and his decision appears to have paid off. B/R's very own Alec Nathan details more of the draft strategies L.A. could pursue. I think a guard like Seth Curry could be a good young fit and the Lakers could wait for him into the second round.
In free agency, most of the franchise-defining talent remains further down the road. However, a Dwight Departure would present the Lakers with freedom this season to take advantage of a quietly productive crop of free agents.
The key weaknesses that L.A. could at least temporarily solve are thin athleticism at the guard position and poor depth beyond a talented but aging core. Not to mention the team's biggest attraction in Bryant is dealing with a career-altering injury at a very late stage in his professional portfolio. He needs help.
A pair of Atlanta guards as well as Nate Robinson become available in free agency this summer and could provide Nash and Bryant necessary rest. I think that even Mario Chalmers could find success (and more minutes!) in Los Angeles as a two-guard. At least until Kobe returns, but he may have then earned a spot in the rotation.
The Lakers will then need big man depth to prepare for a likely separation from a true professional in Pau when his contract expires after one more season. This year the options are limited to DeJuan Blair of the Championship-fiending San Antonio Spurs, J.J. HIckson from the Portland Trailblazers or Aaron Gray from the Toronto Raptors. Or maybe the spiteful Andray Blatche.
Regardless, it seems as though L.A. will have to wait a while for greatness. Whatever happens this year will leave them either strapped or more strapped by the luxury tax stipulations of the 2011 NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement (often referred to as the CBA). WIth respect to the finances, the best course of action is to weather another sub-expectations season in order to buy big next summer.
Oh, and did I mention they need a new coach?
If basketball operations executive Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak execute their next two offseasons with precision, they can have their city's most beloved team back in the title hunt sooner than later.