The long road ahead for L.A. Lakers

Originally Published: April 8, 2013
ESPN.com

The Lakers are in a bit of a jam. (Shocking, we know.) With Kobe Bryant on the shelf for what's expected to be the next six to nine months, the future just got a whole lot murkier in Hollywood. Is it time for a big trade? Will Dwight Howard return? And what about that playoff spot? Let's talk:


1. Fact or Fiction: The Lakers will make the playoffs.


Jovan Buha, ClipperBlog: Fact. Their narrow escapes against the Warriors and the Spurs all but guaranteed it. I don't see the Jazz winning out, so L.A. may not even have to beat the Rockets to get in. Optimists say they have a shot at a higher seed; I disagree, but nothing surprises me with this team.

Danny Chau, Hardwood Paroxysm: Fact. Last night's win against the Spurs makes it extremely likely. The final night of the regular season could decide the final seed, and both the Lakers and Jazz have challenging games against the Rockets and Grizzlies, respectively. But we might not need to wait that long -- if the Jazz are upset tonight, the Lakers can breathe easy.

Brett Koremenos, HoopSpeak: Fact. By beating San Antonio last night, L.A. pretty much locked itself into the postseason. Not only would the Lakers have to lose at home to the Rockets, but the Jazz would have to win two straight on the road, where they've been a miserable 12-27 so far this season.

Chris Palmer, ESPN The Mag: Fact. The magic number is 1. Win and they're in. I believed the moment Kobe Bryant went down it would propel the Lakers to the postseason despite the fact that the Jazz had a more favorable schedule. Was thinking that a five-game win streak to close the season would do it. Rockets would be win No. 5.

Darius Soriano, Forum Blue and Gold: Fact. After beating the Spurs, the Lakers' magic number is just a single game, so a win over the Rockets or a single loss by the Jazz in their final two games gets them in. I envision one of those things happening and the Lakers claiming the eighth seed.


2. Fact or Fiction: Dwight Howard now faces the most pressure in L.A.


Buha: Fiction. Mike D'Antoni is facing the most pressure. If the Lakers fail to reach the playoffs (unlikely), he'll be axed. Heck, he still might be, anyway. With Bryant out, Howard's broad shoulders have a little less pressure on them -- the Lakers are assured a swift exit in Round 1 now.

Chau: Fact. There is no better time than the present for Dwight to prove his worth. If there is any optimism regarding a potential playoff run from the Lakers, Dwight is at the center of it. He'll be the undisputed first option for the Lakers. That kind of pressure is enough to crush most mortals.

Koremenos: Fact. Howard will undoubtedly face the most scrutiny going forward, but in all reality that pressure should be on Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak. The erosion of the roster around the four stars -- and their fit in general -- is the primary reason for the underwhelming performance this season.

Palmer: Fact. The spotlight is all his. In his mind he's the alpha male of this group. But all we've seen him do is worry about himself. Being The Man comes with a ton of leadership responsibility. He wants this to be his team? Prove that you can lead and care about people other than No. 12.

Soriano: Fact. Dwight always had pressure on him to perform as the presumed franchise player once Kobe retired. However, now that Kobe is injured that timeline is pushed forward and he needs to fill the void in leadership and production. If the Spurs game is any indication, he looks ready to step up to the challenge.


3. Fact or Fiction: The Lakers should fire Mike D'Antoni this offseason.


Buha: Fiction. Unless a deal with Phil Jackson is in the works, it doesn't make sense to fire D'Antoni. With an already steep luxury tax awaiting them, why would the Lakers want to pay three different head coaches? Also, there's no way to project how Bryant will recuperate from his Achilles surgery, so next season might not even matter.

Chau: Fact. He was hired into an untenable position, and it's remained that way throughout the season. He's shouldered the brunt of criticism -- some fair, some not. Though the Lakers are likely to make the playoffs, this is a season the organization would love to forget. The cleansing process almost always involves axing the coach.

Koremenos: Fiction. Firing D'Antoni before even giving him a full training camp to implement his philosophy would cause far more problems than it would solve. Personnel is the team's biggest problem, one that will be incredibly tough to address given their high salary figure and limited assets.

Palmer: Fact. This is tricky. The Lakers had chemistry and role issues all year that impeded their progress, but they were slammed with injuries, which D'Antoni had no control over. But if they fail to make the playoffs, the handwriting will be on the wall. I'm just not convinced D'Antoni's the man for the job.

Soriano: Fiction. D'Antoni has been far from perfect, but without a training camp and while dealing with a litany of injuries, he's done a solid job of adjusting his schemes to fit his personnel. With continuity of roster and more time to find the right balance on both sides of the ball, this team can improve with him guiding the ship.


4. Fact or Fiction: The Lakers should try to trade Pau Gasol this offseason.


Buha: Fact. They should try, but the question is: What is he worth? There was a time when the elder Gasol commanded a substantial haul, but that was long ago. He's undoubtedly overpaid in the market's eyes, but his expiring deal could attract a particular suitor. Still, the Lakers may have missed their chance to sell high.

Chau: Fact. Gasol has had a productive month, but the Kobe injury has forced the Lakers to examine their future closely. They will need to get deeper and younger, and parting ways with Gasol seems like the most logical solution that doesn't involve gutting their team completely.

Koremenos: Fact. Assuming the team re-signs Howard, Gasol moving on for better-fitting pieces is a no-brainer. The problem for L.A., however, is that the market for the Spanish big man has likely dried up considerably from where it was before this season started.

Palmer: Fiction. Sure, Gasol is owed $19.2 next year, but with Kobe's future uncertain, Pau's needed more than ever. His contract is up after next season, so why trade him? It would be very difficult to get a player of his worth in return. And it's just too early to give up on the Howard/Gasol duo. But if you can swing a deal for Josh Smith ...

Soriano: Fiction. Despite some positional overlap with Howard, Gasol is still versatile enough to play next to Howard and back him up when he goes to the bench. Add in the salary flexibility Gasol's expiring contract offers for a potential blockbuster rebuild in the summer of 2014, and it's best to hold on to him through the end of his contract.


5. Fact or Fiction: Dwight Howard should re-sign with the Lakers.


Buha: Fact. We can quibble over the potential success Howard would have in Houston with Daryl Morey and The Beard, but there's no denying the fact that the Lakers can offer the most money and the largest market. As long as Howard's relationship with Kobe and D'Antoni is semi-functional, he has no reason to leave.

Chau: Fact. If the Lakers make the playoffs, Howard will get a glimpse of what it'd be like if he were the Lakers' future franchise player on a full-time basis. It's an intoxicating prospect, one that no other franchise can fully match this offseason. I'm pretty sure Howard will realize this quickly.

Koremenos: Fiction. Howard should sign wherever he feels is the best place for him. L.A. offers a lot of positives, but if he feels overwhelmed by the media pressure and shadow of Bryant and other Lakers legends, then perhaps it's best to move on.

Palmer: Fact. L.A. is still the best place for Howard. As much as his stock dropped this season, his numbers were actually pretty solid. In fact, given that he was surrounded by more talent than in Orlando, statistically he's right where he should be. If there's any friction between him and Kobe, Bryant's injury will ironically smooth the transition of power. Next season will be big in establishing himself as the man and crafting a legacy.

Soriano: Fact. Howard has the unique opportunity to be a franchise player for the league's glamor organization. You simply don't willingly turn that opportunity down to go play for any other team, especially when, historically, the Lakers have typically found a way to build a title contender.