The Lakers are truly at a crossroads right now. Their best hope for short-term success is to re-sign Dwight Howard, and then hope that Kobe Bryant, Paul Gasol, and Steve Nash are all healthy enough to have good seasons in 2013-14.
The next hope is that they can build around Howard for the future, using their abundant 2014 cap space. As a result, we've seen the Lakers resort to new levels of desperation, taking out billboards that beg Howard to stay. It's pretty rare that I agree with Bill Plaschke, but I certainly share his lack of enthusiasm for D12.
Dwight Howard is a blessed athlete, but he has no appreciation for the Lakers organization or the fans in Los Angeles. If Howard had his act together, then he could be the next great Laker center, following in the footsteps of George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O'Neal. But after nine years in the NBA, Howard still hasn't developed a consistent offensive game. He has never realized his full potential. And his indecisiveness has grown downright annoying.
If Howard really wants to go his own way and have a team built around him, then why did he so desperately want to leave Orlando? That franchise catered to his every whim. If he wanted to be in a city with more marketing opportunities, then why wouldn't he stay in LA? Why would he consider Houston, which offers a fraction of the endorsements he could receive here? And if Howard wants to be around superstars, then why would he have issues sharing the ball with Kobe Bryant, a player with 10 times his work ethic. No one really knows what Howard wants, and I think that includes Dwight Howard.
Still, if ESPN's Chris Broussard is to be believed, then Howard's main objection to LA is Mike D'Antoni. And if that's the case, then Jim Buss should be immediately deposed due to incompetence. Anyone with a decent basketball IQ could see that D'Antoni's system wasn't going to work for Howard. The fact that the Buss will publicly beg Howard to stay in the form of billboards, but won't hire the right coach for his skill set, is totally baffling.
My guess is that Howard will wind up in Houston. The Rockets can put a terrific team around him with James Harden, Jeremy Lin, and Chandler Parsons. Howard could get another big deal in four years if he's able to stay healthy (which I actually would bet against). And he leaves a franchise that is clearly on its last legs, has uncertain prospects for the future, and won't employ a coach he likes.
So if Howard leaves, then the Lakers will face an organizational crisis. At a time when the Clippers are clearly becoming a championship caliber squad, the Lakers would have no depth, no youth, and no obvious path back to success.
At that point, the best thing for the Lakers would be to destroy their team as quickly as possible in an effort to build it back up with a fresh crop of talent. The Boston Celtics have already realized that the best way to get good in the NBA is get really bad first. Celtics GM Danny Ainge has recognized his team can't win a title as currently constructed, so he traded the aged Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, and reportedly he's seeking to deal Rajon Rondo.
Six months ago, I wrote that the Lakers needed to realize their team couldn't win a title in their current state, and they needed to rebuild as well. That has never been more true today. Especially since the 2014 NBA Draft figures to be historically good, and the Lakers could set themselves up to draft another franchise player.
Kobe Bryant has played 17 seasons, he has a torn Achilles, and it would be a miracle if he came back as a top-10 NBA player. I've learned never to doubt Kobe Bryant, but I also think the Lakers should play the percentages. So the first move the Lakers should make is to amnesty Kobe Bryant. Depending on the team's luxury tax situation, this move could save them upwards of $80 million.
Bryant could potentially be claimed by a pretty terrible team for next season. But the Lakers could tell Bryant that he'd have his best shot at winning a sixth ring with another team after he becomes a free agent. Perhaps he could join Derrick Rose in Chicago at a reduced salary, and play in the city that he wanted to go to in 2007.
The Lakers should then look to trade Pau Gasol and obtain a draft pick for next year. The Minnesota Timberwolves are known to value Gasol, and it's been reported that the Lakers like Derrick Williams, despite his lack of success in the NBA. Metta World Peace is another player who could potentially be had for a draft pick, as several quality teams may see him as useful defensive presence. Steve Nash will be tough to trade, as few teams are interested in a 40-year old injured point guard who is owed $19 million. But perhaps Toronto will give up something of value to bring Nash back to Canada.
All of this sets up for the Lakers to have a pathetic roster for the 2013-14. But that's exactly the point. If the Lakers can get into the lottery, then they will have a shot at drafting Andrew Wiggins, who is a franchise-altering player. Even if they don't get Wiggins, other elite players in next year's draft include Jabari Parker, Marcus Smart, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, and potentially more. With a lottery pick, more picks from trade partners, and then cap space to sign some free agents (possibly Paul George if they're lucky), then the Lakers would be well positioned to have a run of success from 2015 through many years to come. They can even go out and get players who fit D'Antoni's system, thereby bringing "Showtime" back for real.
None of these moves will be popular, and all of them will require guts. It will also require the Lakers have excellent scouts who figure out the right draft picks to take and the best free agent fits. But if Dwight Howard does decide to leave - which seems likely - then this is the path with the highest upside for the Lakers.