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Where The Lakers Go From Here

On Sunday, in his first game without Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard had 26 points, 17 rebounds and 3 blocks on 9-15 shooting. With the Los Angeles Lakers needing a win over the Spurs to stay alive in the playoff race, Howard outdueled Tim Duncan in the type of one-on-one post battle rarely seen in the modern NBA. He didn’t have quite the lift or mobility of his days with the Orlando Magic, but it was closer to what most expected when he came to Los Angeles. Given the inconsistent way Howard and the Lakers have played, it’s hard to know what to expect from them on Wednesday, when they could be in another win or go home scenario. Nevertheless, no matter what happens, there’s room for optimism for a team with a 6’11+ center capable of a 26/17 game.

Unless something dramatic happens in the final week of the regular season, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. If the Lakers make the playoffs, it’s hard to see them making much noise against Oklahoma City, even if they had Bryant. Ignore the vast differences in record and point differential and the matchups are still terrible. Oklahoma City has two 6’10+ post players capable of banging with Howard and Pau Gasol and a 6’7+ perimeter stopper (Thabo Sefolosha) who would have made Kobe work for his points. On the other side of the ball, the Lakers don’t have the perimeter speed to bother Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook. Sending Steve Blake or a hobbled Steve Nash out to face Westbrook is like feeding a Christian to the lions.

Looking back now, the preseason expectations for the Lakers seem a bit foolish. They were an extremely top-heavy team with little depth and no continuity. Howard, coming off major back surgery, was the only one of their starting five in his twenties. With so much age on the floor, the Lakers needed a still hobbled Howard to be Superman, at least on the defensive end. Maybe things would have been different if everyone had been healthy, but it shouldn’t have been a huge surprise that Kobe (34), Nash (38), Gasol (32) and Metta World Peace (33) all missed significant time, especially considering how many minutes they had to play. It’s no coincidence the Knicks, the oldest team in the NBA, were also rocked with injuries.

But while the injuries to their top players may have been unavoidable, their lack of depth wasn’t. The Lakers team speed on the perimeter has been a glaring issue for three years, since Jason Terry and J.J. Barea steamrolled them out of the playoffs in 2011. Strangely enough, a franchise that had no problem racking up a $100 million payroll began pinching pennies when it came to upgrading the back end of their rotation. Chris Duhon and Steve Blake were solid pros in their day, but there’s no excuse for carrying two guards in their 30’s with PER’s under 12. Mitch Kupchak could have found better role-playing perimeter players in Europe, the D-League or under a couch cushion.

Regardless of what happens to their star players this offseason, upgrading their bench should be a priority. With so many offensive weapons already in place and a stable of competent big men, all the Lakers need are a “3-and-D” players at PG, SG and SF. Even without a first-round pick, they shouldn’t be too hard to find. After all, L.A. could have had Patrick Beverley, Alan Anderson and Chris Copeland for nothing at various points in the last two years. The talent pool for professional basketball players worldwide is at an all-time high; there are a number of players in Europe who could help the Lakers right now. Ignoring them in favor of aging veterans with NBA experience is akin to a starving man not picking up a $100 bill lying on the ground.

Of course, the first priority will be re-signing Howard to a max contract. While several other teams could make a run for him, it’s hard to imagine him leaving the Lakers. Star players rarely leave the biggest stage in their sport, whether it’s the Lakers, the New York Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys. If Howard went to Dallas or Atlanta, he’d be taking less money to play for a worse team in a smaller market. His reputation has taken a tremendous hit in the last two seasons, but he’s already reached rock bottom in L.A. If he wins a championship all will be forgiven and there’s no better place to do it than with the Lakers.

Re-signing Howard would push their payroll north of $90 million, which is why talk of amnestying Kobe Bryant is a red herring. Even without his $30 million salary on the books, the Lakers would still be over the salary cap, so it wouldn’t give them much more flexibility. From a strictly financial perspective, it’s hard to imagine a 35-year old shooting guard coming off an Achilles injury being worth the price the Lakers will pay for him, even if he does come back earlier than expected. It will be up to Jim and Jeanie Buss to determine whether the $80 million they could save in luxury tax penalties will be worth the massive PR hit.

Either way, the Lakers can’t afford to make too many changes in 2013, not with the summer of 2014 right around the corner. Right now, Steve Nash is the only player on the books and he could easily retire after his age-39 season. If they re-sign Howard and don’t take on any long-term salary, L.A. could make a hard push for some combination of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony or Dirk Nowitzki. Kevin Love, who played college basketball at UCLA and may be looking for a new home, could be available as well. The rules are different for a team in Los Angeles, New York or Miami; those are the three markets where clearing out cap space is actually a viable long-term strategy.

The Lakers will have to make some hard decisions on Kobe, Pau and Earl Clark, but they won’t make or break the franchise. No matter who is around him, if Howard can be as dominant as he was in Orlando, L.A. could be a title contender next season. Even if he never fully recovers, which is always a possibility for a guy with 10 NBA seasons under his belt, a 28-year-old center who can average 20/10 and contribute on both sides of the ball is an excellent start to a rebuilding effort. In an increasingly perimeter-oriented league bereft of great centers, Howard is the one player who can stand in LeBron’s way. That’s why, after all the dust clears from an incredibly tumultuous season in L.A., Howard is still the great “known unknown” for both the Lakers and the NBA.

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