COMMENTARY | Dwight Howard's decision on whether or not to remain with the Los Angeles Lakers following a tumultuous season is bigger than him -- it may have a significant affect on how free agents view the once-proud franchise in the future.
That's an important prospect for the Lakers of today, because their short term future hinges on their ability to attract marquee players in 2014. All of their biggest salaries will come off the books then, including Kobe Bryant's $30 million and Pau Gasol's $19 million, in hopes of being able to make a legitimate offer to the likes of LeBron James, among others, should he exercise his early termination clause with the Miami Heat.
The Lakers were clearly built to win now and in 2013-14, but reality has been a far cry from expectation around Hollywood after an embarrassing first-round exit from the 2013 NBA Playoffs.
Howard, even at full strength as he returns from injury next season, likely won't be the difference-maker he'll be paid to be with whichever team he ends up with moving forward. His numbers over the last three seasons suggest as much:
2010-11: 22.9 PPG, 14.1 RPG, 59% FG, 60% FT, 26.1 PER (2nd in NBA)
2011-12: 20.6 PPG, 14.5 RPG, 57% FB, 49% FT, 24.2 PER (6th in NBA)
2012-13: 17.1 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 58% FG, 49% FT, 19.4 PER (36th in NBA)
The numbers show that injuries aside, Howard's best years are likely behind him. Despite that, the Lakers would do well to keep him because of the perception of such a slight should he spurn them. In other words, it's in their best interest to slightly overpay for a player who should give them 20-and-12 next season when presumably fully healthy. Those players aren't a dime-a-dozen, and the Lakers can afford the financial hit.
Los Angeles needs to worry about what a Howard departure would mean for their ability to continue with their tried-and-true strategy of bringing in prime talent. Shaquille O'Neal couldn't wait to be the next great center in L.A. How much have things changed that Howard might not take more money to try to accomplish the same thing in a championship climate?
More than likely, it would be a grand way to say things aren't as glamorous as they seem in Laker-land and that the glory days of perennial competition for titles may be coming to a close.
If Howard's as unhappy as he appeared to be this season, then he could very well depart, despite the factors that give L.A. a slight advantage over other suitors. Money, history, prestige and lifestyle all give the Lakers an advantage over all the teams in play, and if he leaves that behind to join the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks or Golden State Warriors, then it's indicative of things never being the same again in Laker-land.
If the Lakers can put together an attractive offer for James, then it stands to reason he could spend the end of his career in Southern California as opposed to South Beach. If Howard leaves, then it could send out red flags to James and other potential targets and cripple their chances to lure top talent.
That means the Laker brand would no longer be a top selling point. Given their troubles on the court of late, that's problematic.
As the offseason prepares to get underway with a marquee decision from Dwight Howard, the most interesting developments may not play out until the summer of 2014.
For more on the Lakers and the NBA, catch up with the author on Twitter @MikeJonesTweets
Michael C. Jones covers the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA as a Southern California-based sports journalist and editor. He contributes to SB Nation in addition to Yahoo! Sports and is the Managing Editor and Founder of Sports Out West.
- Sports & Recreation
- Dwight Howard
- Los Angeles Lakers