Teams spurned by Dwight Howard will have work to do, especially Lakers

There's one question looming for the teams chasing Dwight Howard.

What happens if he doesn't choose us?

The trickle-down effect will be felt the worst by the Lakers, Dallas and Atlanta, if you even count the Hawks as a realistic destination among the five teams courting the summer's biggest free-agent prize.

If Howard turns his back on the Lakers, next season is punted into the abyss. Pau Gasol gets a reprieve for the umpteenth time, but Metta World Peace probably is waived via the amnesty provision, and the Lakers' opening-night lineup looks something like Gasol, Jordan Hill, Steve Nash and Steve Blake.

There's no small forward listed because of one small reason — the Lakers won't have one if they waive World Peace next week. They'll try to get one on the cheap between now and October, especially after Earl Clark agreed to a two-year deal Thursday with Cleveland for a reported $9 million.

If Howard bolts, the Lakers are seriously considering a clampdown on spending in order to get under the luxury tax next season and also avoid the dreaded "repeater tax," which heavily penalizes teams if they are over the tax threshold three times in a five-year span, starting next season.

The repeater tax would be on top of the soon-to-be-more-severe luxury tax, which kicks into effect next season.

Turns out the collective-bargaining agreement, not the Boston Celtics, has become the new archenemy of the Lakers.

So the Lakers will limp into next season with Kobe Bryant returning at an unknown date while recovering from Achilles' tendon surgery. But they'll also have only one person under contract at the end of next June, Steve Nash, and will start shopping in the Summer of Rebuilding.

If the Dallas Mavericks don't get Howard, they're floating in a boat somewhere near the Lakers. They also have an aging roster but, unlike the Lakers, are far enough under the salary cap to pursue whatever big-ticket names are left in this summer's free-agent pond (Josh Smith, Andre Iguodala, Monta Ellis, Andrew Bynum, Paul Millsap).

It's easy to envision the Mavericks, though, waiting until next year, when LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay could all be free agents.

Houston doesn't have to change much if it loses out on Howard, but the Rockets would look a little foolish for waiving serviceable veterans Carlos Delfino and Aaron Brooks, not to mention trading young forward Thomas Robinson, all to make room for Howard.

The Rockets still have James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and promising center Omer Asik. There won't be any pity parties if Howard doesn't come.

Ditto for Golden State, which is reportedly trying to unload veterans Andrew Bogut, Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins to clear cap space and sign Howard. If they can't find any takers, they'll have to do a sign-and-trade with the Lakers for Howard, an unlikely event because the Lakers don't want to take back any salaries in exchange for Howard.

Even without him, the Warriors remain a point-scoring machine that can continue life as usual, just a little farther from the post than they hoped.

More than half of Atlanta's team became free agents July 1, so the Hawks will have to hustle when Howard doesn't pick them. Maybe try harder to re-sign Smith? Maybe take a gamble on Bynum? Or maybe just sit out an entire season, as if their weak fan base would even notice.

One team will be happy if Howard joins them. The other four will either shrug or scramble. More will be known soon, everybody hopes, and certainly before free agents can officially sign on Wednesday.

Twitter: @Mike_Bresnahan

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