After Dwight Howard’s departure, Lakers ponder a sketchy future
Happy 33rd birthday, Pau Gasol.
That was about all the Lakers could muster Saturday after Dwight Howard spat on the cake a day earlier, leaving for the Houston Rockets after a five-day, five-team odyssey.
There’s really only one question: What’s next?
Pau Gasol will stay and the Lakers are leaning toward keeping Metta World Peace instead of waiving him under the one-time amnesty provision, according to a person familiar with the situation.
So next season really comes down to seeing what Kobe Bryant (torn Achilles’ tendon) and Steve Nash (39 years old) look like.
The Lakers are too far over the salary cap to sign anybody else to lucrative deals and are left with one free-agent spending tool — the uninspiring “mini” mid-level exception, worth $3.1 million next season.
It’s certainly not enough to get Nikola Pekovic, Monta Ellis or Brandon Jennings. It might be enough to get Carlos Delfino, Gary Neal or Nate Robinson.
“If Dwight should leave, then we have a Plan B. It’s not as good as Plan A,” General Manager Mitch Kupchak said on draft night a little more than a week ago.
Strange, strange ending to what turned out to be a one-year rental, the Howard fallout even snaring mild-mannered Lakers reserve Jodie Meeks on Saturday.
Numerous websites claimed Meeks posted on Instagram a Photoshopped Howard as a female basketball player, complete with pigtails, makeup and an Orlando Miracle WNBA jersey.
One problem, though, other than the fact the Miracle moved to Connecticut 10 years ago.
“Woww! I don’t even have an instagram” account, Meeks wrote on his Twitter feed Saturday morning. “Whoever that is needs to stop it!!”
He then added “people these days” and “this is a crazy world.”
Meeks was Howard’s best friend on the Lakers.
And from a small corner in the Clippers’ ever-brightening world came a tweet from Clipper Darrell, their unofficial team mascot who wears half-red, half-blue suits to games: “When could u ever say Lakers & Rebuilding and then LAClippers & Championship all in the same sentence.”
He added the hashtag "#CULTURECHANGE.”
Shaquille O’Neal, a longtime critic of Howard, couldn’t resist tossing in his two pennies, telling reporters that the L.A. spotlight was too strong for Howard.
“It was expected,” he said. “We’ve all been in L.A., and not a whole lot of people can handle being under the bright lights. Everybody wants to do it, but when you get there, there are certain pressures. I think it was a safe move for him to go to a little town like Houston. That’s right, little town. I said it.”
The big-town Lakers, though, have larger championship odds than the Rockets, free-falling from 10-1 to 25-1 after Howard’s decision, according to MGM Resorts International. It could be worse, though — the Boston Celtics are 50-1.
The Rockets, by the way, zoomed to 10-1 from 25-1. Looking down at both the Rockets and Lakers are the Clippers, perched at 6-1.
The Lakers’ brand will take a minor hit next season unless Gasol improves drastically in Mike D’Antoni’s system, Bryant comes back more quickly than expected, Nash looks rejuvenated and World Peace looks more like Ron Artest.
“It’s hard because Howard was supposed to be the answer. He was supposed to bring back the glory days,” said George Belch, chairman of the marketing department at San Diego State. “But so much unraveled at the end.
“The good news is the fans are like, ‘Good riddance. We’re glad you’re leaving because it just didn’t work out.’”
The Lakers haven’t started to publicly sell the concept of next summer, when Nash is scheduled to be their only player under contract. They can’t, really. They’re a whole year from restocking. There are tickets to sell, merchandise to hawk, playoffs to maybe sneak into. Maybe.
“If I’m in a marketing office right now, I’m probably scratching my head, saying ‘Where are we going?’ It’s going to be tough,” Belch said.
“What you can do is sit back a little bit and hope that Kobe is healthy again and everybody steps up a little bit. Midway through the season, maybe that’s when you start thinking about the future. They’re going to have a lot of money to spend on free agents.”
Beyond the $50 million they can spend on the 2014-15 season, the Lakers also plan to keep their first-round pick for the first time since 2007. Next year’s draft, headlined by small forward Andrew Wiggins, could be the best in a decade.
“The Lakers have been on an incredible run since the Magic Johnson days,” Belch said. “But the fans are going to have to put up with what some of these other cities have had to do.”
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