What LA Lakers Would Look Like Today If Dwight Howard Had Gotten His Way

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 26, 2013

Apr 9, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA;  Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard (12) on the bench in the second half against the New Orleans Hornets at the Staples Center. Lakers won 104-96. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

If the Los Angeles Lakers had met Dwight Howard's demands this past July, both the team and the NBA as a whole would look completely different right now.

That's because, in Howard's ideal world, the Lakers would belong to him, Kobe Bryant would be set adrift on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and Phil Jackson would be seated on his sideline throne in the Staples Center.

Also, it would probably rain gummy bears and snow skittles. Howard has a sweet tooth.

Confectionery weather patterns aside, the state of NBA basketball in Howard's alternate reality is intriguing. Strangely—terrifyingly, perhaps—the Lakers might actually be in better shape both now and in the future if they'd given in and let Howard have his way.

But the potential for disaster would also have been exceptionally high.

Here's how things might look in D12's world, or, as the Lakers currently refer to it, The Darkest Timeline.

Farewell, Mamba

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According to Ric Bucher of CSN Bay Area, Howard had had enough of Bryant and requested that the Lakers either "muzzle" No. 24 or send him packing via the amnesty provision.

The odds of Bryant shutting up and taking a backseat to Howard were incalculably low, and D12 definitely knew that—especially after spending a year with the in-your-face leader of the Lakers. So his request was really just a more diplomatic way of saying "either he goes, or I go."

Unsurprisingly, the Lakers sided with their iconic star over Howard.

But what if they hadn't?

For starters, the Lakers would have freed up about $30 million in salary, which would have allowed them to max out Howard and (after some roster tinkering) sign another star.

Instead of floating around in limbo during the 2013-14 season, L.A. could have fashioned a leaner, meaner team capable of making noise this season and building toward another big free-agent haul next summer.

Of course, if Bryant returns (miraculously) to full health this season, he, Gasol and Nash will probably give the Lakers a puncher's chance in the short term. But if we take the long view, L.A. could have gotten a one-year head start on its new identity if things had gone Howard's way.

And that's because...

Josh Smith Would Be a Laker

Let's get specific with the ripple effects of a hypothetical Bryant amnesty.

Chances are, the Lakers would have been thorough in their teardown efforts after cutting the Mamba loose. Pau Gasol would have been a trade candidate for the 19th time in the past few years, and some team would have jumped at the chance to add a big man whose skilled passing could transform an offense.

Maybe the Atlanta Hawks would have been interested.

Josh Smith ended up signing with the Detroit Pistons for four years and $54 million. But if there had been an opening alongside his old AAU teammate, he certainly could have pushed for a sign-and-trade deal that would have set him up in L.A. with Howard.

And even if the Lakers had shipped Gasol someplace else, Smith would have been an exciting outright signing. The Lakers probably couldn't have given him the $13.5 million annual salary he got from the Pistons, but they could have come fairly close by clearing space elsewhere.

The on-court machinations of a 4-5 combo involving Smith and Howard would have been somewhat tricky on offense. But defensively, the Lakers would have been terrifying on the interior.

Maybe the Lakers would have found some shooting on the open market. Perhaps Mike Dunleavy or Anthony Morrow would have been interested in spotting up for a few hundred wide-open threes as defenses struggled to contain Smith and Howard around the rim.

Most Lakers fans are staunch Bryant loyalists, so suggesting that the Purple and Gold would be better off right now with Howard is akin to blasphemy. But doesn't the prospect of a younger, more athletic, defensively dominant frontcourt sound good?

In the immediate future, perhaps a Bryant-Gasol tandem is nearly as valuable as a Smith-Howard pairing. But what if Bryant doesn't fully recover?

And what about a year from now, when Bryant is 36, Gasol is 34 and both are unrestricted free agents? It's insane to imagine such a thing, but the alternate reality in which Howard leads the Lakers actually seems more stable from an on-court perspective. And there's no doubt that it gives the team a higher long-term ceiling.

After all, the Lakers would still have big bucks to spend on another star in the 2014 free-agent bonanza. Wouldn't LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony be more likely to sign with Howard and Smith than Bryant and Gasol?

Oh, and we haven't even gotten to the most exciting part about L.A.'s imaginary future with Howard.

Phil Jackson Is the Coach

It's no secret that Howard pined for the Zen Master to return to the bench. D12 told Alex Kennedy of Hoopsworld that he asked for Jackson to be installed as coach last season, so there's little doubt that in Howard's ideal Lakers world, PJax would supplant Mike D'Antoni on the sidelines.

That possibility alone should have Lakers fans wishing Howard had gotten his way.

Jackson has said repeatedly that he isn't going to coach again, but he's occupying a consultant's role with the Lakers right now, so at least we know he's still interested in the game. In addition, Jackson is nothing if not opportunistic. He doesn't sign on to lead teams unless he believes they're already championship caliber.

He's no fool; Bryant's Lakers aren't close to being a real contender. But a version of the team built around Howard might be more to his liking.

So what if the Lakers had kept Howard and replaced D'Antoni with Jackson in July? If we're also assuming that Bryant and Gasol are gone, wouldn't L.A. suddenly be the hottest destination in the NBA again?

Of course it would!

Free agents would have been clamoring to play for Jackson's Lakers at a discount. In fact, if the Lakers had hired Jackson before the Los Angeles Clippers brought in Doc Rivers, Chris Paul's decision to re-up with the Clips might not have been so easy.

The trickle-down effects of Jackson's hypothetical return are never-ending.

The Downside

It's a fun exercise to imagine what the Lakers would look like if they'd given in to Howard's demands this past summer. If D12 had gotten everything he wanted, there's little doubt that L.A. would have a better on-court product this season. Plus, the future would be blindingly bright—especially with Jackson at the helm.

But the Lakers, a team that views itself as bigger than any one player, would have sacrificed something important if they'd acquiesced to Howard's demands. Essentially, they would have been handing the keys to a storied franchise to a 6'11" 12-year-old.

That's a terrifying prospect.

Howard has been fickle, unreliable, childish and difficult to please for the past few years of his career. Giving him the power to shape an entire organization—which is what the Lakers would have had to do if they'd kept him—could have resulted in disaster.

So, as exciting as Dwight's perfect world might seem, it would be a highly unstable reality.

In that sense, L.A. took the safer route by holding firm to its existing core and banking on a big summer in 2014. The ceiling with Howard might have been higher, but the risk of things going badly was also far greater.

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