The decision of one man has transformed the future of the Los Angeles Lakers from promising to depressing.
Dwight Howard had a choice to play for any of five teams pursuing him in free agency. After an up-and-down year with the Lakers, he announced on his Twitter account that he will sign with the Houston Rockets:
I've decided to become a member of the Houston Rockets. I feel its the best place for me and I am excited (cont) http://t.co/h8WK4yP3zB— Dwight Howard (@DwightHoward) July 6, 2013
This has a big impact that will be felt around the league, as Houston now becomes one of the top contenders in the Western Conference. Unfortunately, things are now much worse for Los Angeles.
Despite the problems last season, the Lakers still had one of the more talented squads in the NBA. Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant are future Hall of Famers in the backcourt, while Pau Gasol and Howard provided an elite tandem in the frontcourt.
The major problem was that the foursome was rarely healthy at the same time. When they were, the lack of experience of playing together hurt the squad's ability to win consistently. Still, the team was able to get into the postseason even with these issues.
If the center had decided to return next season, Los Angeles would have been a realistic title contender heading into next season. There is still loads of talent on the roster and the group would have been able to stay near the top of the standings even without Bryant, who is recovering from an Achilles injury.
Once the veteran guard returned, the team would have had a formidable lineup that few would be able to match.
Additionally, Howard would have slowly been able to transition toward becoming the face of the franchise for when Bryant eventually retires. The team could have continued to build around the 27-year-old player and maintained the level of success it is used to having.
Unfortunately, none of that will happen now that the All-Star is headed to Houston. What is left is a roster without a go-to scorer for much of the year and an aging Nash and Gasol leading the way.
Even when Bryant returns to action, the team will not be able to contend for a championship. There simply will not be enough defense or athleticism to match up with the better teams in the conference.
After hearing the news of Howard's decision, general manager Mitch Kupchak released this statement (via Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated):
Naturally we’re disappointed. We will now move forward in a different direction with the future of the franchise and, as always, will do our best to build the best team possible, one our great Lakers fans will be proud to support.
The problem is there are not too many directions available that will help the team. Many of the top free agents have already signed elsewhere, leaving few options that will bring in wins next season.
When the current core of players gets too old to be productive, it will leave the roster barren of talent, forming a squad that will be among the worst in the league.
How many games will the Lakers win next season?
In the NBA, the only real way to rebuild is to have a year of "tanking." It is not a pretty part of the sport, but dropping to the bottom of the standings is much better than being a few games away from the playoffs as it can bring in great young talent through the draft.
However, the current squad is just good enough to make sure that does not happen. Bryant especially has too much pride to allow the team to lose games with any regularity.
This will prevent the influx of young talent that the franchise could build around for the future.
At this point, the only thing left is to wait until next year and then try to sign the next batch of big-name talent on the free-agent market. Unfortunately, that is a risky proposition, especially after seeing what happened this year.
As Howard Beck of the New York Times noted, the Lakers used to get anyone they wanted to come to Los Angeles:
During my Laker beat days, whenever Mitch Kupchak was asked about a FA, his response was same: "We've never lost a player we wanted to keep"— Howard Beck (@HowardBeckNYT) July 6, 2013
This is obviously no longer the case. As a result, the franchise is in trouble for the upcoming season as well as the foreseeable future.
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