Like any self-respecting Lakers fan, I am intensely following the free agency drama of Dwight Howard's decision whether to remain with the Lakers. Which of course means I know all about the "STAY" billboards. My immediate reaction was: I don't like them. Why should the Lakers, the LAKERS!, have to publicly beg him to stay? It felt a little desperate. And like a rare misstep for a franchise which almost always strikes the right tone in its media and player dealings. What, the chance to eventually take over the reins of a world renowned franchise with 16 titles already and every intention of seeking more isn't good enough for you, Dwight?
That's not how the Lakers roll. Free agents come to them. Not the other way around.
I know the Lakers passed it off as "Well, we want to be sure D12 knows that he is really wanted here," with the subtext of, yes, we know he likes the adoration and attention. But it still felt a little unseemly.
But maybe the real intended audience was not Howard, but the brass at Time Warner Cable. If you don't know, TWC just gave the Lakers a $3 billion television contract. The Lakers are in the first year of it. You can't really appear cavalier and complacent in your pursuit of one of the hottest free agents in the NBA with that deal just under way. You've gotta make the suits believe you are really all in on recruiting him to stay. Right? Mega deals call for mega stars.
There is also the small matter of the Lakers finances. The Lakers are looking at a huge luxury tax burden. Three billion goes a long way against that, and a D12 potential max contract is chump change compared to it. But unless the Lakers get their financial house in order, the luxury tax and salary cap issues compound and become even more punitive and will eventually really hamstring the team. So it always made a lot of sense to look at 2013 as a "Let's get our affairs in order year." (You'll rarely hear the word rebuild in Lakerland. The fan backlash is just too severe. Like the New York Yankees, it's championship or bust every year.)
So, the team can never come right out and say, “Well, this year we don't see ourselves playing in June.” But 2013 is shaping up as dicey with the Lakers. With or without D12, the team is still up in the air. No one knows when Kobe Bryant will return from his Achilles injury. Depending on D12’s decision, Metta World Peace or Pau Gasol could get amnestied. The Lakers still desperately need a point guard who can keep up with the likes of Westbrook, Paul and Parker. They need to get younger. And they need some more sharp shooters in order to remain competitive. Plus, the West is stacked. Houston is determined to be a player. You can never count out the Spurs. Immediacy of results has come into sharp relief now that Oklahoma City sees how one injury can derail a championship run. The Lakers can't completely cede this year the way the Celtics appear to be doing. At least not publicly.
So they make a concerted effort to keep D12, which if it doesn’t work out, has the added benefit of being a face saving way out if the team underperforms and Kobe can't come back at full Mamba for a while.
If Howard decamps to the 713, the front office can say “Well, we tried. We really gave it our best effort. Full court press. But no use crying over what might have been. Meanwhile, let's move forward.”
If that's true, this is a neat bit of very high level delicate kabuki theatre.
Look, all this is pure speculation on my part. I don't have any insider info. But follow the money. Time Warner Cable is the real player here. You can't stiff your new patron when the ink is hardly dry on the check. (One more reason why Kobe will never be amnestied. TWC didn't pay $3 billion to watch Kobe wrap up his career in Chicago or Dallas.)
But in a weird way, this could work out well for the Lakers almost no matter what happens. If D12 re-signs, well that's a quality player, a potential franchise anchor, for the future. In 2013, the Lakers will be competitive but likely not have enough to win a championship. Kobe can take all the time he needs to recover. Mitch Kupchak will have to maneuver to set up for 2014.
If D12 does NOT re-sign, well, in 2013 the Lakers will be competitive but likely not have enough to win a championship. Kobe can take all the time he needs to recover. Mitch Kupchak will have to maneuver to set up for 2014.
See how the first variable changing didn't really affect the other two?
And, in spite of their incredible history of Hall of Fame centers, is that truly where the game is going? I always say, build your team for who you are likely to see in May and June. You could make a solid case that having a dominant center isn't the sure ticket to the Finals it once was. Look around the Western Conference—speed at the perimeter on defense and sharp shooting is where it’s at.
I don't think the Lakers or their fans need to be held hostage by Dwight Howard’s decision. Why? Because the future is the franchise.
The right players will come. They always do. It's the Lakers. You come to them.