Regardless of how you feel in the aftermath of Dwight Howard deciding to leave the Lakers and sign with the Houston Rockets, it’s important to note that there isn’t a single individual to blame for the position the Lakers find themselves in today.
This isn’t David Stern’s fault because he did the job he was supposed to do as “owner” of the New Orleans franchise and took the trade that would best increase the team’s sale price. This isn’t Jim Buss’ fault for not firing a coach just to appease a player who never wanted to be here in the first place. Nor is this Mitch Kupchak’s fault because he traded away late first-round picks to help facilitate trades instead of keeping them.
The reason why the Lakers are in Waiting For Next Year-mode is mainly due to bad timing. It’s that simple. No team has suffered under the rules of the league’s new collective bargaining agreement more than they have. But it isn’t because the rules themselves were designed to make the Lakers suffer. It’s because a new system was put in place at a time when the Lakers still had too many years and too much money committed to too many players.
The Lakers still have $62 million committed to four players for this upcoming season on contracts that were signed under the old agreement. So while new rules and penalties were implemented with the new CBA, there were no grandfather clauses put in place so that penalties on contracts signed under the old CBA could be adjusted for their duration. Instead, teams were given two years with which to shed those contracts before the more severe penalties went into effect.
To make matters worse, the new CBA also took away the only chip the Lakers had with which to improve their roster in free agency and replaced it with a much less attractive one. As an example, the old CBA gave the Lakers a mid-level exception that allowed them to add Metta World Peace and Steve Blake to title-defending teams while the new one was only good enough to get them Josh McRoberts.
Bad luck? Yes. Bad timing? Yes. Unfair? Not really. The worst part about it all is that nearly ever team in the league was given a three-year head-start on the Lakers. Three years to sign free agents and draft players while the Lakers got both older and worse. The fact that Kupchak was able to make the moves to acquire Nash and Howard is a testament to his resourcefulness. The league put Mitch in handcuffs and asked him to win a fight. And while he didn’t win the fight, he did everything in his power to try to.
What comes next for the Lakers is anyone’s guess. My guess is they’ll use their amnesty on Metta World Peace any minute now and try to reduce their payroll for next season by even more. If they can get their salary to just $4 million or less above the luxury tax limit (aka “the apron”), they can participate in sign-and-trades as well as use the full mid-level exception. Amnestying World Peace could get them just a small move or two away from there.
As for Dwight Howard, it never really seemed like a fit. It was another instance of bad timing for the Lakers. They had one year to make an impression and it was a disastrous one by Lakers standards. There’s a reason why nobody has ever left the Lakers by choice until now. It’s because they’ve never had a season as tumultuous as the one they just had. If all you’ve experienced is constant negativity, both on and off the court, I can see why you’d want to at least shop around. I have no ill-will towards Dwight. The Lakers were never his preferred destination. He didn’t go to the Lakers by choice, he was traded. He earned the right to be a free agent and determine where he wanted to play for the remainder of his prime and he went with the team he felt gave him the best chance to win immediately. The Rockets offered an up-and-coming team that everyone seems to like and all the Lakers could offer him was hope-based-on-history.
I’m disappointed that he chose to play elsewhere but there’s no use crying about it. Time to move on just like he did. Committing those years and dollars was always going to be a risk because of Dwight’s back but it was a risk I was hoping would happen. I wrote last month that even if you wanted Dwight gone that bringing him back was a better business decision than losing the only attractive asset left on your roster.
What I do know is that the Lakers aren’t tanking, at least not deliberately. There are rosters in the league that are still worse than theirs is. For the first time since 1996, the Lakers will have salary cap space with which to start the next chapter of their storied franchise. They will have also had three years of hopefully learning from the mistakes that other teams have made under the new collective bargaining agreement. They will also be able to restart the clock on the repeater tax, the scariest part of the new CBA, should they put together a teams that’s of championship caliber.
This team wasn’t going to win a championship as they were constructed. This wasn’t the Cleveland Cavaliers team that had won 127 games and had the league’s best regular season record in back-to-back seasons when LeBron James decided to leave. This was a team that was caught between two CBAs, patiently waiting for contracts to expire and hoping they could get Howard to wait patiently for just one more year. To Dwight, that meant he’d have to wait at least five years between Finals appearances without the certainty of who his teammates would be. Even with all of that, I still thought that he would have re-signed with the Lakers and asked for a trade later than pass up all that money.
If the fans of other teams want to pretend like Dwight was leaving a defending champion, let them. They were the same people who were telling us that Dwight was terrible during the season. While it isn’t the best day to be a Lakers fan, it certainly isn’t the worst day either. May the standard for the franchise always be so high that a 45-win season is considered a “Season From Hell”. We’ve had so much good luck over the last 30 years that when things like injury-riddled season happen, or a free agent decides the grass is greener somewhere else, you can’t get sad or angry about it. You just have to chalk it up to it being your turn to finally suffer a little bad luck and hope it’s not a long ride.
The Lakers have been able to put together championship teams over and over despite having not drafted in the single-digits since 1979. They were able to rebuild from a 34-win team in the aftermath of Shaq’s departure to a back-to-back champion with Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar, and Andrew Bynum as the only players on their roster who they acquired through the draft. This isn’t the end for the Lakers so much as it is the start of a new beginning.
Funny that I write this from a hotel room in Cleveland, the city that set the benchmark for how not to react when one of your players decides to go elsewhere. But it’s like I said, sometimes the best explanation is timing.
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