A hypothetical conversation between Red Auerbach and Dwight Howard in the summer of 1988:
“Look at the history of our organization, kid,” he said. “We've won 16 of the last 30 NBA titles. We won in the 60's, in the 70's, and the 80's. No franchise, not even those guys out in Hollywood can match what we've done here in Boston. We've always won, and you can be part of it.”
Every word of it true, and totally useless for the next 20 years when the Celtics were irrelevant.
It's a pitch not unlike the one the Lakers will make Tuesday to Dwight Howard. Stay here, because we've always won. We have always found a way. The Rockets can put Yao Ming on Skype, but haven't been out of the first round since '97. We've missed the playoffs twice since you were born. The Mavs have one title. Atlanta? Golden State? These are teams hanging division title banners.
All true, and if Howard's job was to pick the franchise with the best pedigree, his decision wouldn't require a 24-hour siege of television and Twitter.
But it's not. Take Dwight at his word, and this is about where he, entering the prime of his career, can go and have the best opportunity to win. And for all the the banners, retired jerseys, sex appeal, and gravitas, the Lakers have a rebuild coming, whether Howard hangs around or not. It's unavoidable. Past performance may add credibility, but does not guarantee future results, and none of that past performance came in the NBA's brave new post-CBA world.
Right now, the Rockets have a much better chance to compete for a title with Howard than the Lakers. So would the Warriors, assuming they're not gutted by the process of acquiring him. There's really no debate. The Lakers have cap space coming up after next season, but had no first round pick in this year's draft and have only one in the next two. They have viable trade asset (Pau Gasol) to try and get the stuff teams almost always need to build a contender. Particularly with the new CBA rules.
The Lakers will undoubtedly be aggressive with their cap space next summer, and in any summer they have it. If LeBron is available, they'll be players. But after James, the list of available UFAs is pretty dicey, and building a team through free agency under the new CBA is about the most difficult and inefficient way to do it. Ultimately, you need young talent and assets, either to put out on the floor or trade for other pieces. The Lakers have little access to either.
Los Angeles will always present some attractive advantages for professional athletes, starting with the ability to leave practice and sit by the water in shorts in the middle of February. The Lakers, with their multi-billion dollar TV deal, will always have money to spend. But all those other ancillary benefits — Endorsements! Commercials! Movies! Premier tables at The Ivy! — haven't been the monopoly of huge markets for years. LeBron had no problem finding endorsements in Cleveland. Dwight Howard cut 18 zillion commercials a year playing in Orlando. You know, back when people liked him. Warner Brothers tracked down Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City to make “Thunderstruck.”
Short of wearing shorts in February or lunching every day at The Ivy, there's not much Howard can do in L.A. that he can't do in Houston. And he can eat wherever he wants, including Los Angeles, in the offseason.
Which is why all those Stay Dwight billboards the Lakers posted around town were smart. It recognizes that the feeling of so many fans and media in L.A. — any player worth his salt should be tripping over himself to stay here — isn't' the feeling of the organization. It's not a classically Lakers thing to do, but recognizes the reality shift. The brand in and of itself isn't enough to sell players. The end of this type of Lakers Exceptionalism is something we've talked about, and others (like SB Nation's Tom Ziller in that there link) have hit on in different forms going back a while now, though not everyone has been open to recognizing it.
It means the Lakers can't just sell the past to reassure Dwight about the future. It has to be about what's coming. I'm not some doomsday type saying the Lakers will never win again. They will always spend money when they can, they'll always try to put a winning product on the floor. But all teams, even the Lakers, have life cycles. Even more so under the new rules. And there, the Lakers are at a distinct disadvantage. In any non-LeBron-comes-to-L.A. scenario, the Lakers are at least a couple years away from serious title contention. There's uncertainty in the front office, tension with the coach, and questions about how long the iconic, dominant star player is hanging around. “Trust us because it always works out here,” basically the thrust of what Kobe Bryant said to Lakers.com, requires faith Howard hasn't had time to build.
Still, Dwight might be sold. This is hardly the worst place on the planet to ply one's trade on a basketball court, after all. But ironically, they'll likely be in a better spot to recruit Howard the next time he's up for a contract, should he leave for a four year deal somewhere else.
Unfortunately, the Lakers have to do it now, and timing is everything.