USA TODAY Sports
It's all about Dwight Howard for the Lakers.
Few players have the ability to completely shape an offseason like Howard does with the Los Angeles Lakers.
If the league's best big man (when he's healthy) decides to return to the team, everything will work out for the Purple and Gold. Well, they hope so, at least.
Kobe Bryant will eventually return from his ruptured Achilles, and he'd join Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Dwight to form that terrifying quartet once more. Karma and the law of averages both dictate that the injury imp can't possibly plague the Lake Show quite as much during the 2013-14 season.
Hidden in the constant turmoil and the nail-biting quest to even make the playoffs was the fact that L.A. dominated toward the end of the season. Kobe's injury and the subsequent loss to the San Antonio Spurs masked it as well.
The Lakers went into the All-Star break at 25-29 and finished the season on a five-game winning streak that pushed their final record to 45-37. Their win-loss record over that stretch of the season was 20-8, good for a winning percentage of 71.4. Over the course of an 82-game season, that percentage would leave them either 58-24 or 59-23.
58 or 59 wins would have put L.A. in either the No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the Western Conference during the 2012-13 season.
As they showed on a consistent basis throughout the second half of the season, these Lakers can be the dominant squad we expected, and Howard returning would give them a chance to prove it over the course of a full season.
At the same time, it would be absolutely disastrous if the big man left for greener pastures. L.A. has $79,631,035 on the books before re-signing Howard, and there aren't many realistic options Mitch Kupchak could use to clean the books.
Metta World Peace has an early termination option, one that the Lakers probably wouldn't mind if he exercises, but he's unlikely to turn down $7.7 million. Jodie Meeks has a club option for $1.5 million, but that's not going to push the team below the cap.
In fact, L.A.'s best option is to use the amnesty clause on one of the remaining eligible players: MWP, Steve Blake, Gasol or Bryant. And that's probably not going to make much of a difference, since only Gasol and Kobe have gaudy enough contracts to free up much space.
Regardless of whether or not Howard spurns the Lakers, L.A. is stuck using the mini mid-level exception and signing either its own free agents or players willing to accept minimum deals. See why Howard is so important now?
The Lakers can't afford to let him slip away, and it's not because of his dominance on the court. It's mostly because he's their only option to remain truly competitive.