Free agency begins in earnest at midnight Eastern, 9pm PST today. Teams will reach out to the players they covet, schmoozing will commence, and decisions will, eventually, be made.
For the Lakers, the biggest priority is what happens with Dwight Howard. Let’s summarize what we know to this point:
*Dwight plans to meet with at least 5 teams. The Rockets, Mavericks, Hawks, Warriors and the Lakers.
*The Rockets will be first, flying into Los Angeles to meet with Dwight tonight at the crack of free agency. They plan to bring
the entire city of Houston their owner Les Alexander, GM Darryl Morey, head coach Kevin McHale, Hakeem, Clyde Drexler, James Harden, and Chandler Parsons.
*The Mavericks will supposedly get first crack on Monday, followed by meetings with the other, non-Lakers, teams.
*The Lakers, at their request, will go last in this process. Likely meeting with Dwight on Tuesday.
*The latest reports out of Dwight’s camp are that winning is the most important thing to him and that there is no “favorite” in the process at this point. He’s said to have an open mind towards the teams and that he wants to gather information to make the best decision in terms of where he can win multiple championships.
*That latest report also states that Dwight will not ask the Lakers to fire Mike D’Antoni with hints that even if he did ask, the Lakers wouldn’t move on from their head coach.
With all this in mind, let’s quickly handicap the race. Of the 5 suitors, I think it’s easiest to eliminate the Hawks and the Warriors from the top tier of contenders at this early stage. The Hawks are furthest away from being a contending team and it’s been reported before that Dwight isn’t keen on playing in his hometown. As for the Warriors, they don’t have the cap space to sign Dwight outright and would need the Lakers to participate in a sign and trade for then to acquire him. This doesn’t mean that can’t happen down the road, but being that the Lakers would have to agree to make this deal it puts them on the back burner for now, and potentially for this entire process. What’s more likely with the Warriors is that they’re in this mix to show that they’re a FA destination down the line and it likely means more to them to even get this meeting as a signal to the league that they’re for real heading into next summer rather than a meaningful grab for Howard’s services.
This leaves the Rockets, Mavs, and Lakers. All have their pros and cons, and I think it can go either way between any of them.
The Mavs actually have a similar situation to offer as the Lakers: they have an aging franchise anchor, an owner willing to spend on a winner, and cap space galore coming up within the next couple of seasons. This has its appeals, but to be honest, they’re likely 3rd in this race unless Dwight really loves Dallas as a city and/or Cuban as an owner and/or the idea of playing for Rick Carlisle (which are all possible).
The Rockets, meanwhile offer a young roster with an up and coming star player and solid role players to complement. Their cap situation will be cleaner in the summer of 2015 when Asik and Lin’s contracts come off the books and they’ll need to renounce/waive/trade some talented players (one or more of Carlos Delfino, Aaron Brooks, Francisco Garcia, Thomas Robinson) to get far enough under the cap to offer a full max contract. This is a very good basketball situation for Howard, but I think it’s being oversold somewhat as a place where the Rockets are so much better off from a talent standpoint than other teams. What they have are young players that can grow with Dwight by their side. But last season they were the 8th seed and will actually lose some of the contributors who made achieving at that level possible. They have a ton of plusses, but at this point some of those are being oversold.
As for the Lakers, we know what they have to offer. Of all the teams they have the best history of success, offer the best market, and the most money/longest contract. The last point is mitigated somewhat by the fact it’s believed Dwight will opt out of whatever contract he signs in the next two weeks in order to secure another max deal in either 3 or 4 seasons. This makes the financial difference in contracts much less. However, what’s not being mentioned often enough is that if Dwight really does opt out, the Lakers can pay him a max extension just like any other team he signs with so there’s not a benefit of moving on in that scenario. Also, there’s the point that, in the past, the Lakers have made balloon salary payments to superstar players up front. This type of payment can be banked by the player in order accrue interest that can then offset the higher state taxes in California. I’ve read that the Lakers have done this for Shaq and for Kobe. It’s quite possible they’d do it for Dwight as well.
In essence, I still believe this comes down to the Lakers or the Rockets. Which way he leans after this process is done will come down to factors that, even if we believe the reports about winning, only Dwight will truly know. I’m still very hopeful he signs with the Lakers. We’ll know for sure within the next 10 days.
Dwight, of course, isn’t the only relevant news. The Lakers still need help on the wing and, potentially, in the back court heading into next season. Consider the following:
*On Saturday, the Lakers waived Chris Duhon to save on his salary for next season. By waiving him, the Lakers pay him only $1.5 million of the $4 million he was owed.
*As we’ve mentioned, the Lakers didn’t make qualifying offers Darius Morris, Andrew Goudelock, or Devin Ebanks. I don’t expect any of them to be back next year, though that could change.
*Earl Clark is an unrestricted free agent. He’s said he wants to return to the Lakers and even hinted he’d take less money to do so, but he will have suitors on the open market and typically the money wins out in those situations.
*Antawn Jamison is an unrestricted free agent and there’s a good chance he doesn’t return.
Without those 6 players (and potentially Dwight Howard), the Lakers only have Nash, Kobe, Ron, Pau, Hill, Blake, Meeks, and Sacre under contract. That’s 8 players. Typically the Lakers carry either 13 or 14 on their roster. They need bodies to fill out this team and hopefully some ones that fill specific needs.
Of those needs, the biggest is help on the wing in the form of defense and/or shooting (and preferably both). There are players who check off one or both of these boxes including Kyle Korver, Dorell Wright, Corey Brewer, OJ Mayo, Nick Young, Marco Belinelli, Francisco Garcia, Carlos Delfino, Matt Barnes, Tony Allen, Mike Dunleavy, Ronnie Brewer, JR Smith, JJ Redick, Wes Johnson, Martell Webster, and several others. Some of these guys will be in the Lakers’ price range. Some will be way beyond it. The market will sort these things out and there will be options.
What I’m interested in seeing is the timing in which the Lakers try to fill these needs. Dwight is the big fish and typically that means he will be the first domino to fall in the Lakers’ equation. Plus, when it comes to lower tiered FA’s like those the team will be looking for there’s typically not a lot of harm in waiting to sign one (or more) of them. That said, the Lakers don’t meet with Dwight until Tuesday and there’s something to be said for trying to acquire one of your targets early, especially if that player could help make the team better (which in turn could help in the recruiting of Dwight).
Ultimately, though, we’ll know a lot more in the next few days. Sit tight, the ride will probably be a wild one.