Memo to Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak: Are you really sure you want to hand over the franchise keys to Dwight Howard?
As NBA free agency looms (July 1), the burning question for Los Angeles Lakers fans is whether it makes sense to sign the 27-year old, 6-11 center to a five-year, $118 million contract extension. That is, if Howard even wants to remain in Los Angeles.
With Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol due a combined $49 million in the final year of their respective contracts, is it worth tying up so much more money to keep Howard? Has he really demonstrated that he's worthy of the tag "franchise player"?
While most NBA pundits acknowledge him as one of the game's elite players and a defensive force, there are enough red flags to suggest that Dwight Howard does not possess the stuff of champions that can lead the Lakers for the next five to 10 years.
Although publicly reiterating their No. 1 goal in the offseason is to sign Howard to a long-term deal, the L.A. Lakers should do the prudent thing and let the big man go. It's obvious that Howard wants to play under a coach (Phil Jackson? Kevin McHale?) who has had success with centers and half-court games. Mike D'Antoni in Los Angeles is not that guy.
The reasons to let Howard walk are clear and, while unpopular with D12 fans, will put the Lakers in a much better position to grab a couple of the league's top free agents in 2014. If Howard leaves this year, Gasol departs in 2014 and Kobe Bryant either retires or re-signs for less, the Lakers will have enough money for one or two max contracts and a third player at a pretty high salary level.
The likelihood of the Lakers winning a title this coming season is very slim, even with Howard on their roster. Bryant is coming back from Achilles surgery and the team is so far over the salary cap, it can only use a mini mid-level ($3 million) or veteran's minimum to sign additional talent.
Howard is just not the franchise player the Lakers thought they had when they consummated a four-team deal to acquire him last August. True, he was not 100 percent healthy earlier in the season, but his lack of dominance down the stretch and into the first round of the playoffs illustrated just how lacking Howard is as an offensive force.
Howard's offensive skills are only slightly improved from when he broke into the league. He'll average 20 points per game on 58-60 percent shooting, but will never be a top-10 scorer and his arsenal of moves around the basket is limited.
He may be the best defensive center in the game, but the Dwight Howard of today does not pass the litmus test of confident leader and champion-in-waiting. Not to mention that his lack of offensive skills and free-throw shooting turn him into a liability, especially late in close games.
There is no denying that a healthy Howard is one of the top defensive centers in the league. Yet, even if he declares his love for the Lakers, there are those who feel he is not the right fit to lead this team.
What should the Lakers do about Dwight Howard?
None other than Earvin Magic Johnson has expressed his displeasure with the Dwight Howard that currently wears the purple and gold. In a recent interview with ESPN Los Angeles reporter Dave McMenamin, Johnson said: "The Lakers have to decide what they want to do. Dwight has to decide what he wants to do."
The face of the Lakers franchise during a Hall of Fame career and an outspoken critic of the team's management and coaching, Johnson is a harsh critic of Howard, though not totally dismissive.
I don't know, it just depends on who you put around him if they decide to sign him. You have to have some great players around him and then Dwight Howard has to get better. I'm not happy with this Dwight Howard, but if he gets into the gym and really works on his game and gets some go-to moves, I think that it will be a wise decision to sign him. But he has a lot of work to do this summer on his offensive skills. He's always been dominant and a great rebounder as well as shot blocker. But, he needs to definitely work on his offense. The Lakers just have to make a decision on whether they feel Dwight can be the face of this franchise for the next, what, 10 years or so, and they can win championships with him, as well.
Kobe Bryant, realizing his playing days are numbered, does not want to see Howard leave. Speaking on the Mason & Ireland Show, Bryant said:
It's not like you have guys like Dwight Howard just walking around every day. Those guys are hard to find. They don't grow on trees. I think when you have somebody like that, with his talent level, you have to, you have to be able to keep him and lock him in with this franchise, and with the history that this franchise has of having great centers, this would, in my opinion, be the perfect spot for him.
But, if Howard truly wants to be a long-term member of the Lakers and help them win championships, one would think he would declare that already. Doing so will allow the team to move other pieces around him and build on that foundation.
The Lakers have always had marquee players, dating back to the early days in Minnesota when center George Mikan dominated the landscape. Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant all were superior offensive and defensive talents with a passion for winning.
Just listen to ESPN's Skip Bayless and why he's convinced Dwight Howard is not a good fit in a Lakers uniform. It comes down to personality and the players and coaches he surrounds himself with.
Dwight Howard may yet show that fire in the belly that all great champions possess. But he hasn't yet, and after eight NBA seasons, the odds of that surfacing in his on-court personality are slim.