It’s hard to blame the Lakers for selling what they had to sell.
It’s worked before, a hundred times. Jerry Buss, Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, even the memories of Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson and other retired greats. Jack Nicholson. It’s a cadre of names that has always appealed, along with the promise of Los Angeles and the Lakers’ 16 championships.
But Buss passed away last winter, and the team unceremoniously rejected Jackson during its coaching search last November. Bryant tore his Achilles tendon in April, and at 34, he may not have more than a season or two left in him. Nash, too, is past his prime, more a figurehead than a contributor, and retired players only count for so much. Even Nicholson is aging; he’s 76, and his last movie, 2010’s “How Do You Know,” was a box-office bust.
The Lakers’ pitch, once classic, feels stale. The team feels like the choice a player makes for the name and nothing else, especially now, when, Howard or no Howard, next season looks something like a rebuild. The Lakers are stuck in another era, their salary situation muddled by decisions made during an old collective bargaining agreement, their approach to winning more about throwing money at players than anything more nuanced.
If the Lakers are going to remain the Lakers, the purple and gold that runs Los Angeles, they need a fresh start. They need a younger roster, a cheaper roster. They need contracts — Bryant’s and Pau Gasols, even Metta World Peace’s — off the books. They do not need the albatross of Howard’s $118 million, even if he’s healthy, even if he somehow bends to the culture that he seemed allergic to for all of last winter.
It’s time, now, for Los Angeles to look to Boston. It’s time to watch what Danny Ainge did last week, when he blew up his team after Doc Rivers’ departure. He blew up the team the Lakers faced twice in the NBA Finals, in 2008 and 2010, one that’s as storied a franchise as the one Howard just spurned. Yet Ainge felt no shame, even if he couldn’t quite stomach the word “tank.”
The Lakers don’t have to admit it, either, but if they do, it might help. If they do, it wouldn’t be ineptitude that unfolds next season. It would be honesty, and with a very real promise that they would be good again, great again, even, and likely faster than the Celtics will be.
It’s a lot to stomach, but lately the Lakers have been in the business of stomaching. They plastered billboards on Hollywood Blvd. and at the Staples Center, for goodness sake, to convince Howard to say. They posted a photoshopped façade of the Beverly Hills Hotel covered in Howard’s jersey on social media. They rushed to get the first word in with their prized free agent as the clocked ticked to 9:01 p.m. in Los Angeles on June 30, as if he didn’t know already that they wanted him.
Pride went out the window a long time ago, so why not keep it at bay for another year?
Would the Lakers have won a championship with Howard next season? The odds aren’t great. The West is too stacked with talent, Bryant is injured and old and the team’s roster is aging and inflexible. Combine that with Howard’s utter inability to gel with anyone in purple and gold, especially Bryant, and there are still challenges. Ugly ones.
Looking beyond next season for the Lakers, the fallout seems less terrifying. With Howard and a better roster in 2014-15, maybe they win, but who’s to say that the roster without Howard won’t contend? Anyone who says this lost the Lakers their shot at big-name free agents or LeBron James is crazy. James — and the rest of next summer’s crop of talent — has eyes and ears and a Twitter account. No way any of them would want to sign on to the Dwightmare any more than they would to a Lakers team building toward the success that it can’t seem to shake for long.
Losing Howard doesn’t dramatically change what the Lakers will be able to do in 2013-14. They’re still strapped by their lack of cap space, able only to offer their mini-mid level exception of $3.2 million per year and veteran’s minimum contracts. They can use their amnesty clause on World Peace or Gasol, but that saves them only luxury tax bills; it doesn’t open up room. They can trade either, as well, but it’s hard to say what they’d get for World Peace, and without Howard, Gasol is looking far less dispensable.
Unless, of course, the Lakers want to tank, or tank in everything but name. If they want to do so, they trade Gasol for young talent or draft picks, and World Peace, too. Even trading one would help, and the Lakers need draft picks, which they’ve been handing out like Halloween candy for years. There’s a nature of delayed gratification in all this, but such is the nature of a rebuild. There’s a difference between stockpiling a few picks or developing young talent and starting Andrew Goudelock. The former is a future, the latter a Band-Aid.
More than anything, the Lakers have to modernize. They have to prove they understand the tricky waters that are the NBA in 2013, and the first step in doing so is to cough up 2013-14 as a wash. It would restore some sanity to all of this, as insane as a losing Lakers team might sound. Those same show ponies they trotted out 10 years ago are getting old, and it might take a year of pain to find a more nuanced pitch.