COMMENTARY | Most insiders and outsiders expect Dwight Howard to re-sign with the Los Angeles Lakers, but ultimately, he may escape from Los Angeles with Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta likely offering refuge. If Howard decides that he does not want to be the next great center in the line of George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal, how would the Lakers conceivably react?
First of all, Pau Gasol would certainly be back.
Without Howard, the Spaniard would be the primary post option for the Lakers. Some insiders believe Gasol will be back regardless of Howard's decision, and Kobe Bryant publicly begged management to keep Gasol.
In his exit interview, Bryant lobbied emphatically to keep Gasol and avoid wasting the experience and chemistry built between Howard, Gasol, and the Mamba during the nightmare season. L.A. won eight of the final nine regular season games with Gasol and Howard leading the way.
Also, the 33-years-old Spaniard underwent a rather elaborate knee procedure aimed at regenerating tissue in his worn out knees. Coming off the most injury-riddled season of his career, Gasol's knee procedure did not exactly shoot up his draft value this offseason. However, Gasol's expiring contract should still result in interest from around the league.
Getting back to the point, if Howard walks, Gasol is definitely back at center.
The Lakers would likely make a strong play to lure Josh Smith at power forward via free agency. Smith would provide a defensive presence and some much needed athleticism. Defensive strength and athleticism would be necessary in a front court that featured the older Gasol brother--the brother who definitely did not win Defensive Player of the Year.
However, Smith is not exactly the perfect shooter for Mike D'Antoni's traditional system of spacing the floor offensively. Obviously, Los Angeles would have other front court options in free agency: David West, Paul Milsap, Al Jefferson, Lamar Odom and more. Also, Jordan Hill is under contract.
In the back court, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash will almost certainly return regardless of Howard's decision to stay or go. Nash is an immovable contract, and Bryant is not available for serious discussions--yes, that includes amnesty discussions.
If Howard decides he wants to be jeered at Staples Center for all eternity, the Lakers may be better off sacrificing size for speed: Chris Paul.
Offering Paul the Lakers franchise may still not be enough to get him, but making him the sole face and future of the franchise is more than the Clippers have been able to accomplish in two seasons. Has anyone explicitly told Blake Griffin that the Clippers are Paul's team?
If Paul returns to the Clippers as expected, the Lakers would be wise to explore bringing in other free agent point guards like Jose Calderon, Devin Harris, Mo Williams, D.J. Augustin and Earl Watson. Others will likely be made available after players and teams exercise their early termination options, but the aforementioned list is the best on offer from the guaranteed group of free agents.
Along with Nash and Bryant, the Lakers are expected to bring Darius Morris, Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks back. However, the team has an option on Meeks, Blake can be let go under the amnesty provision, and Morris is a restricted free agent. Chris Duhon is not likely to return due to financial reasons.
Regardless of Howard's return, the Lakers also need to add another three-point shooter. The best options in free agency are Kyle Korver, Marco Belinelli and Nick Young. All three of those guys shot at least as well as Meeks from distance in 2012-13, and all three have better career percentages than Meeks. In short, the numbers would imply that every team in the league would take Belinelli, Young, and Korver shooting threes over Meeks, and so should the Lakers.
On the other side of the court, Howard's healthy return should immediately result in his return to being the top defender in the NBA. However, in the nightmare season that was, the Lakers did not finish with a single player voted to the first or second all-defensive teams.
Bryant and Metta World Peace have slipped, and the Lakers' need to improve perimeter defense would only grow if Howard walks. The best available perimeter defender is Tony Allen. He was first team all-defensive team for the 2012-13 season.
World Peace had one of his better seasons, but he may be cut via the amnesty clause or walk out the door with his player option. Regardless of World Peace's presence, the Lakers need to strengthen the perimeter. The anchor is of little use if the ship is constantly leaking water.
Devin Ebanks and Antawn Jamison will not be back. For everyone who said "Why isn't Ebanks playing"--and just about everyone had that thought out loud at some point this season--truth be told, the 23-year-old has a great deal to prove over the summer if he wishes to remain in the NBA. Jamison was in such a hurry to get away from the Lakers that he did not even partake in exit interviews.
Robert Sacre should be back dancing on the bench after spending his summer at the beach. Earl Clark is also an unrestricted free agent, but most insiders believe the Lakers will make Clark a respectable short-term offer.
Ultimately, Howard's decision will reveal a great deal about his ambition. He can become the star of the Lakers for the foreseeable future, or he can walk away from one of the most storied franchises in all of sports.
If Howard decides he is not built for the bright lights, warm weather and lofty expectations of the Los Angeles Lakers, the Lakers should consider themselves lucky. After all, if Howard decides he does not want to be a Laker, L.A. understands that he is definitely not cut from the same cloth that hangs up in the rafters.
Shahan Ahmed is a Yahoo! Contributor in Sports and is a Los Angeles Lakers insider for NBC Los Angeles. He is based in L.A. and also serves as the Chief Editor at AccuScore.
You can follow Shahan on Twitter @ShahanLA