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How the Los Angeles Lakers Rebuild Their Front Line If Dwight Howard Goes

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How the Los Angeles Lakers Rebuild Their Front Line If Dwight Howard Goes
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Watch out, Los Angeles Lakers fans! The sky is falling! 

Earl Clark is leaving town!

Okay, so maybe I'm being facetious about the impact of losing Clark to the Cleveland Cavaliers on a two-year, $9 million pact, as reported by Sean Deveney of the Sporting News. He brought some nice things to the table as a versatile, athletic rebounder, shooter and defender under Mike D'Antoni last season.

But the real story here still rests on the meaty shoulders of Dwight Howard. The free agency pitches have been, well, pitched, and now Dwight is off to Colorado, where he'll spend time clearing his head and mulling over his options for the future.

Anything other than a return to LA for Howard would all but ensure that the Lakers are screwed (to some degree) for the upcoming season. Their current salary situation is such that they're already deep into luxury tax territory, even without Howard's hefty payday on the books, and thus subject to a number of crippling personnel-related restrictions under the current collective bargaining agreement.

Howard's departure would leave the Lakers with Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace and Jordan Hill in the frontcourt and only the mini-mid-level exception, worth a shade over $3 million per season, and veteran's minimum contracts with which to woo free agents to the City of Angels.

That's hardly ideal, to put it mildly, and even less so when considering a couple other crucial factors:

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1. Kobe Bryant will be out for at least the first month or so of the season while recovering from a torn Achilles. Heck, he probably won't be anywhere near proper playing shape until, say, February or March of 2014 at the earliest, assuming he ever will be.

2. Steve Nash is coming off an injury-plagued season that, in nearly every way, was his worst since the 1999-00 campaign with the Dallas Mavericks. Moreover, Nash turns 40 in February of 2014, which means he's at the point of his playing career where bouncing back is more a matter of wishful thinking than of realistic expectations.

Like I said, the Lakers will be in a bind for the time being if Howard heads elsewhere. They'll have oodles of cap space with which to lure marquee free agents next summer (LeBron James? Carmelo Anthony? Chris Bosh? Paul George?). But, for now, they'll have little choice but to take their lumps if Dwight does, indeed, skip town for Houston or Dallas or Oakland or Atlanta.

Of course, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak isn't going to just sit at his desk, twiddling his thumbs and shrugging his shoulders until July of 2014. You can be sure he's already poking around the market in search of reinforcements along LA's front line.

So far, the rumor mill has mentioned the Purple and Gold in connection with Chris Copeland, per Al Iannazzone of Newsday, Kenyon Martin, according to ESPN's Chris Broussard, Brandan Wright, via Jared Zwerling of ESPN New York, and Byron Mullens, as reported by Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles.

Not exactly a "Murderer's Row" of Dwight replacements, to say the least. Copeland also figures to garner a more lucrative deal from one of his other suitors that the Lakers won't be able to match.

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As far as Mike D'Antoni's spread pick-and-roll system is concerned, though, Copeland would be a solid addition. The 29-year-old sophomore-to-be nailed 42.1 percent of his three-point attempts with the New York Knicks last season. He fits the description of a stretch 4 about as well as anyone on the market at the moment.

So, too, does Byron Mullens—in playing style, anyway. The 24-year-old 7-footer launched jumpers with reckless abandon for the Charlotte Bobcats in 2012-13 (3.9 three-point attempts per game, to be exact), with results about as poor as you might expect. Mullens shot 38.5 percent from the field, 33.5 percent from mid-range, and 31.7 percent from three.

But hey, at least he's comfortable on the perimeter and he's certainly not gun-shy...so there's that.

Martin and Wright aren't long-range shooters by any stretch, but they're instead cut from the cloth of high-energy, defensive-minded bigs. K-Mart was surprisingly effective in such a role off the bench for the Knicks last season, bodying up against opposing forwards and centers while chipping in 7.2 points and 5.3 rebounds for good measure.

Of course, the last thing the Lakers need is another dude in his mid-30s with a lengthy history of injuries.

Brandan Wright's been beat up plenty in his time as a pro, but he doesn't turn 26 until October, so there's still hope for him to stay relatively healthy over the course of a season.

He posted numbers (8.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 59.7 percent shooting) not entirely unlike K-Mart's in a reserve role with the Dallas Mavericks during the previous campaign. His size, length, athleticism and relative youth would render him a welcome addition to the Lakers' locker room.

Still, neither Wright nor any of the other aforementioned free agents are going to get folks in LA all that excited, nor should they. Realistically speaking, the best the Lakers could hope for, with any of these guys added to their current group, is another trip to the playoffs without any semblance of home-court advantage in the perpetually deep Western Conference.

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However, their choices might not end there.

If Dwight decides he wants to play for the Golden State Warriors and is able to force a sign-and-trade to the Bay (a highly unlikely scenario at this point, but I suppose it's too early to rule anything out), then the Lakers might be able to extract some useful size from their NorCal neighbors.

The Dubs could dump Andrew Bogut's expiring contract on the Lakers, along with, say, Harrison Barnes/Klay Thompson and either Richard Jefferson or Andris Biedrins, as Marcus Thompson of the Contra Costa Times suggested. Bogut would give LA another defensive-minded giant up front, with Barnes or Thompson filling in for Kobe on the wing and Jefferson or Biedrins handing out towels and water from the end of the bench.

Except that plan is anything but foolproof, for a number of reasons:

1. Dwight might not be so keen to sign with the Warriors if they were to give up one of their three young studs (Stephen Curry, Thompson, or Barnes) to bring him aboard.

2. The Lakers have already made clear their intention to decline any and all sign-and-trade proposals, per ESPN's Marc Stein.

3. LA's resistance therein would only calcify if Barnes or Thompson weren't included. After all, what's the point of paying salary and luxury tax penalties for a hobbled Bogut and a useless Jefferson/Biedrins on a team that isn't going to contend for much anyway?

Clearly, frontcourt reinforcements will be hard to come by for the Lakers if Dwight does, indeed, take his talents elsewhere. The question is, what caliber of bigs do the Lakers actually need to be competitive next season? 

Perhaps not as high a caliber as you might think.

According to NBA.com, LA outscored opponents by 6.4 points per 100 possessions in the 970 minutes that Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace were paired up and by 10.1 points per 100 possessions in the 164 minutes that Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill played together last season. Those three shared just 83 minutes in 2012-13 but owned a 20.7-point edge per 100 possessions therein.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

To be sure, we're talking about very small samples for the latter two combinations, though there's at least some evidence to suggest that a Lakers front line with Gasol at center next to Jordan Hill or Metta could be good for LA.

And don't underestimate how much more efficient Gasol is when Howard isn't hogging his typical turf. Per NBA.com, Pau averaged more points (15.7 to 13.9) and rebounds (10.2 to 8.5) and fewer turnovers (1.7 to 2.6) per 36 minutes, and shot better from the field (47.8 to 45.9) and from three (.333 to .263), when Dwight wasn't around.

These disparities make a ton of intuitive sense. For one, Gasol got better (i.e. closer) looks at the basket when Dwight wasn't clogging the paint, and he grabbed more rebounds when Howard wasn't there to clean the glass.

Pau also chipped in more assists with Howard by his side (5.2 to 3.1) because he was often relegated to facilitation from the high post under those circumstances, as opposed to being the primary post scorer whenever Howard needed a breather.

The point is, Pau's most comfortable playing center and is still more than capable of being a productive option on the low block.

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In that case, the Lakers wouldn't need any major additions to remain reasonably competitive out West. They're certainly not claiming a title with just that trio, though a winning record wouldn't be out of reach, so long as Nash is healthy and Jodie Meeks can cover a bit for Kobe while the Mamba works his way back from injury.

Still, sneaking into the playoffs is hardly victory enough to satiate the Lakers, who've long maintained championship expectations and will continue to as long as there are superstars around to demand them. 

Which means at least another three years, if Kobe's most recent retirement proclamations to Lakers reporter Mike Trudell are to be believed.

Good luck doing that if Dwight isn't around.

For all of his obvious faults, Howard remains one of the premier big men in the NBA and is arguably the best at his position when healthy. Remember, the guy about whom Lakers fans griped for being selfish, disinterested and uncaring (among other things) is the very same one who averaged 17.4 points, 2.4 blocks and 1.1 steals; shot 57.8 percent from the field; and led the league in rebounding last season.

He did it all while hobbling through the lingering effects of major surgery on his back and playing with a torn labrum in his shoulder.

Dwight may never again dominate the league like he did during his heyday in Orlando, but it's not far-fetched to think he'll come closer to that next season, after a summer replete with rest and proper conditioning, than he did in his first (and perhaps only) go-round in purple and gold.

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Simply put, the Lakers aren't better off without Howard—not now, and not over the duration of what would be a five-year, $118 million deal.

They can stay afloat in the choppy seas of the Association without him.

But merely avoiding drowning and sailing through to golden, championship shores are two very different things—the latter of which would probably take years more to achieve with a Dwight-less frontcourt.

 

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