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Lakers in limbo while awaiting free agent Dwight Howard's decision

Los Angeles LakersDwight HowardKobe BryantSportsBasketballPau GasolMetta World Peace

A.C. Green left the Lakers for Phoenix exactly 20 years ago this summer, perhaps the only important player they ever lost to free agency.

It so irritated Jerry Buss that he appealed to his players a few months later at training camp with an impassioned "Beat the Suns!" It was one of the few times that Buss, the longtime Lakers owner who died this year, ever addressed the team that way.

The Lakers have another free-agent courting on their hands, but instead of chasing a one-time All-Star like Green, they're trying to impress seven-timer Dwight Howard.

The franchise has stopped in time. There's a sense of uncertainty, if not uneasiness, in the halls of the front office. Will a big-name free agent really turn his back on the 16-time NBA champions?

If it feels like the Lakers went through this recently, they did, somewhat, in 2004, while Kobe Bryant debated whether to ditch the only team he knew and join the Clippers.

"When the phone call came in, we really didn't know which way it was going to go," Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said Thursday, calling the Howard situation "very similar" and "scary close" to what he experienced with Bryant nine years ago.

Bryant chose the Lakers after an 11th-hour phone call from Buss.

Howard will visit with representatives from Houston, Dallas and Atlanta before meeting with the Lakers, the team has been told.

Kupchak remains optimistic. He's been through this already. It ended well enough with Bryant. He's hoping for the same with Howard.

"There was a period there where Kobe was earning his stripes in Los Angeles and I think when he came back, he had to continue," Kupchak said. "Here it is, seven, eight, nine years later and I think that's what would happen with Dwight once he put his roots down and said, 'This is the place that I want to be.'

"I think the city feels to some degree that they were renting him for a year. But the reality is he couldn't sign an extension financially and the rules provide that he wait until July 1 to get the best deal he can possibly get. And of course the way the season went didn't help things, either."

The Lakers were swept in the first round of the playoffs by San Antonio and Howard was ejected in the finale, as if fans needed a reminder.

Howard's agent, Dan Fegan, has met regularly with Kupchak since the season ended abruptly in April, during which time Kupchak has repeated the Lakers' desire to re-sign Howard.

Almost every Lakers fan knows Howard can sign a five-year, $118-million contract with the team as opposed to a four-year, $88-million deal with someone else.

Still, the Lakers took the aggressive, and unusual, step of placing pro-Howard billboards in several areas around Los Angeles, including Hollywood Boulevard and on the side of Staples Center.

The message is clear, written in all capitals: "STAY." An action shot of Howard is included on each board.

The billboards also directed fans to Twitter via the hashtag "StayD12," but the Internet reception was mixed.

"Stop beggin Dwight Howard to stay," wrote @Gj824.

Another fan, @7FindingForever, wondered "When the hell did Los Angeles turn into Orlando?"

But Lakers fan @_georgiiie implored Howard to "please stay in L.A.!!"

Said @lakers_army: "Whether you like it or not, Dwight is the best center in the NBA. Lakers need him!"

The Lakers made a minor personnel move this week they probably would have done anyway, picking up the one-year option for reserve guard Jodie Meeks, who happened to be Howard's best friend on the team. Meeks, 25, will be under contract through next season for $1.6 million.

Free agency begins Sunday at 9:01 p.m., and players cannot officially sign until July 10, though the Lakers hope Howard returns right around then.

It's important because they have a small window from July 10-16 to use their one-time "amnesty" provision and waive a player without paying luxury taxes on his salary. One of four eligible Lakers can be cut: Bryant ($30.5 million next season), Pau Gasol ($19.3 million), Metta World Peace ($7.7 million) or Steve Blake ($4 million).

Bryant won't be waived because it would be a terrible public-relations move for the team. Blake is safe because his salary is too small to make a financial difference.

That leaves Gasol and World Peace. Howard likes playing with Gasol and could withhold his decision until after the amnesty window, forcing the Lakers to waive World Peace.

But if Howard agrees to return before July 16, Gasol could be waived to potentially save $60 million in luxury taxes.

It's a strange situation that gets stranger. If Howard bolts, Gasol stays and the Lakers look a lot more watered-down next season.

"If Dwight should leave, then we have a Plan B. It's not as good as Plan A," Kupchak acknowledged.

The Lakers are way too far over the salary cap to sign a high-impact player even if Howard chooses another team. The most they can offer a free agent is a three-year, $10-million contract, as per rules of the collective-bargaining agreement.

Howard's departure could mean a Lakers opening-night lineup of Gasol, Steve Nash, Jordan Hill, Blake and a small forward to be figured out by the end of October. Bryant would start the season in place of Blake if he recovered in time from a torn Achilles' tendon, a shaky prospect at best.

The Lakers will consider re-signing free-agent small forward Earl Clark if he comes cheaply. Clark made $1.2 million last season.

The good news for the team if Howard leaves is the shopping spree they'll experience next year. The only player under contract with the Lakers after next season is Nash for $9.7 million in 2014-15. That leaves enough money to sign two maximum-level free agents and a third for pretty good money.

"I think it puts them in position to be a great franchise for five years if they make the right decision and the right moves," Magic Johnson said earlier this month.

Regardless, the Lakers want Howard back.

Whether he wants them in return will be known soon enough.

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

twitter.com/Mike_Bresnahan

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