In the event this happens, the Purple and Gold must come up with a contingency plan.
If Howard walks away, the best that Laker general manager Mitch Kupchak can do is engineer a sign-and-trade transaction. Choosing this route helps out the Lakers, given that they do not lose the coveted big man for nothing.
Indeed, a sign-and-trade gives the Lakers assets. Granted, they might not necessarily be great ones. For the purposes of illustrating this situation, we will use the Houston Rockets as example.
Most seem to agree that Houston is Howard’s desired landing spot. Per Hoopsworld, the Rockets must forgo re-signing any of their own free agents and terminate any non-guaranteed deals they have with current players in order to make a run at the Laker center.
However, the 2013-14 salary cap figure is unknown at the present time. It should be announced a little after the moratorium that concludes on July 10th, per Larry Coon’s NBA Salary Cap FAQ. It’s possible that Houston will not have the requisite cap space to sign Howard outright to a maximum level contract. In this case, the Lakers could negotiate a sign-and-trade deal with the Rockets.
Then the question becomes: Whom could Kupchak possibly desire on the Houston roster other than James Harden?
Let’s be clear here, the Rockets are not trading Harden. They could offer up Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Thomas Robinson or Chandler Parsons, to name a few. The Lakers already have Steve Nash and Steve Blake signed at point guard, thus Lin is not needed.
Asik could be an interesting option, but his lack of a refined offensive game and the fact that he’s a poor free-throw shooter could severely restrict his minutes in Mike D’Antoni’s system.
Robinson is an interesting piece, but according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, it’s possible the young forward might already be gone from the roster by the time Howard receives the Rockets’ free agent pitch:
The Houston Rockets are determined to trade forward Thomas Robinson– the fifth pick in the 2012 NBA draft—to create salary-cap space for the pursuit of the Los Angeles Lakers’ free-agent superstar Dwight Howard, league sources told Yahoo! Sports.
And in the case of Parsons, his athleticism, shooting, defense and cheap contract make him nearly untouchable. In related news, Houston general manager Daryl Morey tweeted this about the quintet:
Thus, the one asset the Lakers could potentially acquire in a sign-and-trade deal from Houston is Robinson.
He has a modest contract paying him $3.52 million in 2013-14 and also has a team option at the conclusion of that very same season. But let’s look at this from Kupchak’s point of view for a moment: If the Lakers have no interest in the pieces Houston has to offer, they must still participate if they want something in return.
Houston does not have to give anything up to the Lakers. If Kupchak decides he does not like whatever the Rockets offer, Morey can simply dump Robinson onto another team and then sign Howard as a free agent.
Trading away Robinson will provide the Rockets with the requisite cap space for a Howard maximum contract offer.
Los Angeles must weigh the benefits associated with whatever carrot the prospective team signing Howard presents. The asset in question must help the Lakers upgrade their roster and at the same time it must not compromise their 2014 projected salary cap.
According to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com, the Lakers are eying LeBron James’ contract situation. He can opt out of his deal in the 2014 offseason, and the Purple and Gold will have the necessary cap space to sign him outright if they renounce all of their free agents.
Hence, if Kupchak cannot obtain exactly what the Lakers need (short-term contract and relatively talented player) in a sign-and-trade scenario for Howard, the franchise is better off letting him walk.
His departure cuts down the payroll and consequently diminishes the luxury-tax bill. Unless the Lakers decline to pick up their qualifying offers, waive Chris Duhon’s non-guaranteed contract and have Metta World Peace use the early termination clause in his contract, the team will exceed the tax threshold.
Thus, adding salaries increases the amount of the bill.
On the flip side, letting Howard depart without getting anything in return sends a strong message to fans and the rest of the league: The Lakers are looking at the 2014 summer and nothing in between.
That’s a dangerous proposition for a team in which every deal save for Nash’s expires at the end of the 2013-14 season. It practically gives players a license to play for their stats and boost their value going into the offseason as free agents.
That’s an incredibly dangerous scenario—one that could derail an entire regular season.
However, allowing Howard to walk and tweaking the roster a little is probably the best course of action.
Playing at center, Pau Gasol will flourish and regain his all-star form. However, the Lakers need an infusion of youth, athleticism and shooting. There are a couple of trade packages at Kupchak's disposal that will fill one of those needs, if not all of them.
A core of Kobe Bryant, Nash and Gasol can be lethal against most of the league, especially with D’Antoni coaching the team. The Lakers can build around that nucleus for one season and then reload the following year based on the outcome of James’ free-agency recruitment.
In a perfect Laker world, that core would lead the Lakers into the 2014 postseason and give them an opportunity to compete for a title despite Howard’s defection. But Lakerland was not synonymous with perfection in 2012-13.
The numerous injuries exposed the lack of depth on the roster and left the team with more questions than answers. A trio of Bryant, Nash and Gasol sounds formidable until we factor in its fragility.
Based on Mike Trudell’s interview with Laker trainer Gary Vitti, it’s unclear whether Bryant will be ready by the start of the 2013-14 season. Couple that with Nash’s age and injuries during the 2012-13 campaign and there is a fear the Lakers’ starting backcourt will miss considerable time going forward.
As a result, Howard’s departure might open up the door to trade Gasol. A swap involving a player of his stature and skill comes with several pros and cons.
Mind you, one of the advantages of dealing him is the amount of quality players they could get in return. A transaction involving Gasol brings in multiple players and helps plug holes.
All of the options discussed so far revolve around the Lakers competing for a playoff spot. However, there is a possibility the front office might simply blow it all up in the event Howard walks away.
With Howard on another team and Bryant rehabbing his ruptured Achilles, Kupchak has the option to amnesty the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer and avoid the luxury tax altogether. Although it’s unlikely, it’s still a possibility. The financial relief is simply far too great to completely dismiss the idea. The amnesty provision can only be used seven days following the July moratorium.
It stands to reason that Howard will have decided by then the team he will be playing for in 2013-14. But there is no certainty. Nonetheless, the replacement plan for the big man is far from easy.
Once upon a time, personnel decisions in Lakerland seemed incredibly effortless. But Howard has complicated things in Los Angeles, and there’s no telling what path lies ahead for the Lakers if he exits.