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Dwight Howard is headed to Houston, but before he left L.A., he asked the Lakers about moving on from the Kobe Bryant era. Our panel examines the Kobe-Dwight dynamic and the Lakers' future.
Larry Coon, ESPN Insider: Fiction. It was widely reported that in their meeting prior to Howard's decision, Kobe challenged Howard to step up. Somehow I don't think Bryant's blueprint for success includes kowtowing to a fellow superstar's fragile ego. I think Kobe would say that someone who needs to be deferred to like that isn't a champion and never will be, so why do you want him so badly?
Dave McMenamin, ESPN Los Angeles: Fiction. I've always believed that respect is earned, not given. Bryant worked at getting through to Howard, from trying to cut through the void between them during that meeting in Memphis that ultimately turned the season around to doing little things like mapping out plays for the big man when they were both on the bench in Indiana. Howard could feel like he should have been celebrated more for playing through his back and shoulder injuries, but that's not being realistic. This is a put-up or shut-up business.
Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Los Angeles: Fiction. But I'm hedging this one because I actually think Kobe tried to give Dwight respect in the beginning of the season. When things went really badly for the Lakers, all heck broke loose. There wasn't time or space to bring someone slowly along when the bottom was falling out. The Lakers needed everyone bailing water out the boat as fast as they could, so Kobe dropped the nice act and challenged Howard in the well-chronicled team meeting in Memphis.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN Insider: Fiction. I don't believe there's a villain here -- just players with different motivations and personalities, at different stages of their career. Had Kobe given Dwight Howard more respect, it's still quite possible that Howard still would have opted for a better situation in Houston. It's hard to blame Kobe for not thwarting a logical choice from Dwight.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: Fact. But it is not at all in Kobe's personality to do so. Kobe obviously badly wanted to win another title, and the Lakers getting Howard helped to that end even if they didn't mesh personally. Keeping Howard would've helped the Lakers compete for a title. If Kobe wanted to win another ring before his time was up, courting Howard probably would have been a good idea.
Coon: Fiction. Howard's departure changes the game plan, of course. Amnestying Kobe would reduce their payroll from $80 million to $50 million, but then what? That's not low enough to have true cap room. They'd gain the full $5 million midlevel exception, but they're already spending $3 million of it on Chris Kaman. They could do a sign-and-trade, but for whom? The Lakers would rather take their chances with Kobe's recovery.
McMenamin: Fiction. I spoke to Bryant at his basketball camp in Santa Barbara on Wednesday. The guy says he's well ahead of schedule to return to the court. He's eyeing being back in training mode by the middle of August. The Lakers should be just as excited to have Bryant in uniform as he attempts to mount a historic comeback as Bryant is geeked to do so.
Shelburne: Fiction. I know what the numbers say, but amnestying Kobe -- against his wishes -- would damage the Lakers brand irrevocably. And right now, that's the best thing the team has going. Kobe represents Lakers glory and exceptionalism. You don't just cast that aside to save on luxury tax.
Strauss: Fiction. It's too late now. An amnesty would save the Lakers some short-term money, but their sights are set on 2014, when Kobe's contract is up. The amnesty would have improved L.A.'s flexibility this summer, but all the major free agents have been signed.
Windhorst: Fiction. I could talk strategy and illustrate how amnestying Kobe and trading Pau Gasol could have helped the Lakers get Howard and Chris Paul. I could talk about how it could open up numerous options. But the reality is, Kobe has put up five banners and he's sold out your arena for 15 years, and you don't turn your back on that.
Coon: Fiction. If Howard stayed and Kobe's rehab projected out to a full year, a strong case could be made that amnesty would be the team's best strategic move. It would be a bitter pill for a lot of Lakers fans to swallow, but it would go down a lot easier if Kobe was on board with the idea. But with Howard gone, Lakers management can't exactly tell its fan base to keep spending money while the team goes through the motions for a full season.
McMenamin: Fiction. Even if Bryant is harboring some doubt in his mind that he will not be able to play a full season and just isn't telling us yet, why would Bryant willingly wipe out a full season beforehand? Bryant has said that the only thing on his agenda is rings at this point, but you'd be a fool not to think that he's also interested in catching Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the all-time scoring list, and that alone gives him plenty of motivation to play in 2013-14.
Shelburne: Fiction. Ever hear the expression never leave one job until you have the next one lined up? That's Kobe if he voluntarily asked to be amnestied. What if he did that, and then Howard had such a great season he was in a position to influence the Lakers not to bring Kobe back? What if he did that, and the Lakers traded Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, then signed Chris Paul to join Dwight? Would there be room for Kobe? All far-fetched, but you don't take chances like that with your legacy.
Strauss: Fact. Players don't tend to return quickly from an Achilles injury. The ideal solution would have been for an amnestied Bryant to spend this season rehabbing, and then sign with the Lakers in 2014. In that scenario, the Lakers gain roster flexibility, save luxury tax money, and Bryant also gets his salary. Everybody wins, provided Bryant is willing to skip some games in a rebuilding year.
Windhorst: Fiction. It may be counterintuitive, but this injury seems to have energized him. Isiah Thomas retired when he blew his Achilles; Kobe is now talking about wanting a three-year contract after floating the idea of retiring in 2014 just a few months ago. That is not a man who would accept amnesty. Based on what Kobe thinks of him, it seems like if Howard had re-signed, then Kobe might've thought about a different answer.
Coon: Fact. The Lakers will wipe the slate clean next summer, save for Steve Nash's $9.7 million – which can be reduced to $3.2 million through the league's stretch provision. Once that happens, it's time to go shopping – but their spending power is significantly reduced with Kobe's $30 million on the books. If Kobe wants more rings, he needs to help the team out in 2014. They'll still have his Bird rights and can make it up to him later.
McMenamin: Fact. Now, not major in the sense of going from $30.5 million down to the veteran's minimum or midlevel exception, but major in the way that Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan have done already (and Dirk Nowitzki has vowed to do in the future) to settle on a deal in the $10 million per season range.
Shelburne: Fact. But it depends on your definition of "major." I think a salary between $10-15 million a season is the market value for superstars in their mid-to-late 30s like Kobe, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. That's either one-third or one-half of what Kobe is making now, which qualifies as "major" in my book. A vet minimum salary though? No way.
Strauss: Fact. Kobe's one of the greatest to ever play, but he'll be 36 when that new contract kicks in. He should take a pay cut, because max money would be madness at this stage of his career. The man is middle-aged.
Windhorst: Fact. And of course he will, ultimately, after taking a bargaining position. This year he will be just the second player ever to earn $30 million in a season other than Jordan. And like Jordan, after he gets a huge salary to pay him off, he will take much smaller salaries at the end.
Coon: Fiction. It's a compelling argument: a historically deep draft, featuring Andrew Wiggins and at least eight players whom Chad Ford labels as potential All-Stars. Why wouldn't a team try to secure a high pick in such a draft, when the alternative is to chase the eighth seed and face elimination in the first round of the playoffs? For most teams, the choice would be a no-brainer. But doing that simply isn't a part of the Lakers' makeup. Their culture and ethos won't allow them to do that.
McMenamin: Fiction. They should not move Gasol before the season begins and declare the season Tank-a-palooza before the ball is even tipped. Let the two-time champion at least have the chance to go out with a graceful fighter's exit by making him a key cog for next season. This changes, however, if the Lakers are a few months into the season and mired below .500. At that point, the smart play is to strip the roster down and hope that the 2014 first-round pick the Lakers have turns into a franchise-changing talent.
Shelburne: Fiction. Play the season out and see where you are near the trade deadline, when Gasol's expiring deal will have the most value. As good as the 2014 draft is supposed to be, other teams are so much further along in the "Tank for Wiggins" race that it's hard to see the Lakers out-tanking them and landing among the top three picks.
Strauss: Fact, emphatically so. With only Steve Nash signed through 2015, the Lakers don't have a lot of options or assets right now. True, Los Angeles is a free-agent destination, but it's hard to woo superstars if you don't have that initial piece. If the Lakers get a hyped top-3 pick, they'll have something to build on. If they slog forth in pursuit of an eighth seed, they'll have nothing to build on.
Windhorst: Fiction. That ship has sailed. Considering the state of Gasol's knees, I'm not sure they could've gotten much for him anyway as far as future picks and prospects. There are only a couple teams who truly have a legitimate chance to build through free agency, and the Lakers are one of them. That is their plan; they're going to try to compete this season and then swing for fences in free agency next summer.