The Lakers’ Backup Plan

If the Lakers don't re-sign Dwight Howard, they still have plenty of cap flexibility to build around Kobe Bryant -- perhaps in next year's loaded free agent class. (USA TODAY Sports)

If the Lakers don't re-sign Dwight Howard, they still have plenty of cap flexibility to build around Kobe Bryant -- perhaps in next year's loaded free agent class. (USA TODAY Sports)

They’re a storied franchise, and a proud one too, with 16 championships and four statues standing outside of the arena. The Lakers aren’t too familiar with failure, and when it happens, they recover and recapture, their basketball healing powers almost holistic.

They believe they’ll re-sign free agent Dwight Howard this summer and keep order in the Laker World. But if they don’t? Is that disaster? Will it mean Kobe Bryant will ride out his sunset years being stuck with a few more Smush Parkers?

Not necessarily. Actually, the Lakers minus Howard would be far from done, and depending on whom you ask, perhaps better off. Though you can never be sure about the direction of the franchise under Jim Buss, who has yet to demonstrate the same ownership touch of his father, the Lakers are well positioned to deal with almost any fallout from being rejected by Howard.

Here’s what they have in their favor: Mitch Kupchak, oodles of salary cap room, Lakers tradition, L.A. lifestyle, an aging but more determined than ever Kobe and the best chance to grab the best player in the world.

No, not Dwight. That would be LeBron James.

Next summer, the Lakers’ payroll is only $9 million, money owed to Steve Nash. That’s it. When you think about it, how solid is their cap situation? The free agent pool in 2014 will be twice as attractive as it is now, with LeBron, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dirk Nowitzki all eligible. And there’s also the chance other players will be shopped for various reasons: Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo come to mind. Also, Paul George will be a restricted free agent, as will Larry Sanders.

The Lakers will be required to place a cap hold for Kobe, which will limit their flexibility to a degree, but Kobe will likely come down from his 2013-14 salary of $30 million. He knows that’s not much help for a team that will be essentially building from scratch. He badly wants a sixth championship and will realize he’ll need a worthy co-star, perhaps someone better than him. Yes, can you imagine Kobe and LeBron together? Not entirely far-fetched at all.

Kobe will have to demonstrate an ability to rebound from Achilles surgery, but he insists  he has at least three good years left. Last season before he felt a pop, Kobe averaged 27 points and made the All-Star team. At one stretch, he carried the Lakers. Judging by how he takes care of himself, who’s to doubt him? Besides, Kobe, who turns 35 next month, would never allow himself to play at a substantially lower level; his ego and standards are too big for that. He’d kill himself trying to stay an All-Star, or retire first.

The blueprint will be handled by Kupchak, an effective GM as long as he’s free to call the shots. Certainly humbled by last year’s epic collapse, Buss will likely give Kupchak space to work with and only step in once the payroll ventures into luxury-tax area. At least you’d think.

The Lakers could sign a max player, add another All-Star, re-sign Kobe, fill out the roster with useful role players and suddenly be back in the game. They can do this because they’re not the Sacramento Kings. They’re the Lakers and there are some built-in advantages that come with that.

They’re a destination team, which means they’ll always be on the list for any top free agent. They generate enough money, from a sublimely ridiculous TV contract and the highest ticket prices around, to deal with luxury tax issues (though not to the extent of the Knicks or Nets, whose owners are far more richer than the Busses). And they’ll have Kobe, perhaps for at least another two years, to serve as an ambassador.

The Lakers always seem to find a way to reinvent themselves. Most of this had to do with the genius of the Jerrys, Buss and West. That allowed them to draft Magic Johnson and James Worthy, swing a trade for the rights to Kobe and seduce Shaquille O’Neal. And that’s the trick for these Lakers, to keep that tradition alive.

The best way is to sign Howard, who’s not in the class of the above players but not the vastly overrated center he’s often portrayed as, either. In a league that values big men, unless your team has LeBron, Howard carries weight. That’s why six teams are fighting for him right now. But if he leaves, the Lakers will turn to their Plan R, for Rebirth.

This isn’t a franchise that’s accustomed to staying down for very long. With cap room and Kobe, next summer looks splendid. Ultimately, the length of their pain will be determined by Jim Buss, which isn’t such a bad thing. Is it?

11 thoughts on “The Lakers’ Backup Plan

  1. I’m a life long Laker fan and I can barely stomach Kobe, but LeBron…NO WAY!!!
    Egoegoeoegoeogeoegoeogo….these guys make me sick.

    • Right there with you… As far as I’m concerned, he can stay in Miami, oh and Howard can go too, he doesn’t deserve to be a Laker. He wants to be the big fish in a small market, not in LA!

    • The word “alot” is actually not a word at all. I can’t tell you to look it up, because it is not in the dictionary.

  2. WOW! Easy there Bboy. everybody makes you puke and you hate everybody. If I were you Id get back to my safari, Hat and all. And take your no-talent to South Africa. I hear they have a way with sick, puking, Safari guy’s, Who tend to hate basketball players.

  3. The lakers are better off without Dwight the wannabe. Let him fly somewhere else. Because with him you are surely limited with a person that wants to be catered to and strip the Lakers of cap space. The better option is to use that max money instead of him and get better players on the outside perimeter that can drive to the basket or pull up and shoot. We need players that are committed to the cause of a championship and not just money mongers. With the money loosened up without him the cap space will open up doors for better players off the bench. Your best five shouldn’t have to play every minute of every game. So Buss family, bus in a team instead of a few stars.

    M. Barton

  4. Lakers could be in for several lean years. Cant bank on 2014 free agent list. LeBron is not leaving the Heat ( nor is Wade ). C. Anthony might be their only hope ( if the Knicks go nowhere in the playoffs this year and next ). If Howard bolts (think he is Houston bound) , hope Lakers do a sign & trade. Getting Omer Asik and perhaps T. Jones & a pick …. is better than nothing ( or cap space to sign no one ).

  5. Dwight Howard; despite his obvious talent, is gutless. We saw that in the playoffs, we don’t need to see a repeat. A true superstar player isn’t just talented, they have a relentless desire to be the best, to stand out from everyone else, and to lead. That ain’t Dwight by a long shot.

    By the way, LeBron is exactly the kind of player the Lakers would love to have. It ain’t going to happen. LeBron is set up to win at least a couple more championships where he is and I don’t see him wanting to mess that up. Plan B isn’t going to involve LeBron James.