Heisler: Summertime for Lakers, But The Livin’ Ain’t Easy

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Dwight HowardEL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Now, after the winter of the Lakers’ discontent… a summer that doesn’t look like three months at the beach, either.

It was grisly to the end, which was even worse than the beginning, when the lowly Mavs beat them opening night in Staples, then they lost Steve Nash the next night in a loss at Portland.

How would you like to be Mike D’Antoni, taking over at 5-6, with his point guard out until Dec. 22 … only to learn upon his return that Dwight Howard couldn’t run a pick-and-roll with Nash, whose deft passing and deadeye shooting make him one of the all-time greats at it?

(I’m guessing there’s a glitch in the “advanced stats” that have Howard atop the NBA annually, including this season. If they only count the ones when he gets the ball, he can slip the pick, as he would, leaving Nash with no passing angle to him so the Lakes got nothing out of it—without counting against his P/R stats.)

Oh, and Dwight didn’t look so happy to be here either, yelling at teammates on the floor almost on a nightly basis in the first half of the season.

Introducing D’Antoni when he was hired in November, GM Mitch Kupchak talked about becoming an uptempo team. Acknowledged Kupchak Tuesday: “What our vision was certainly couldn’t take place.”

Segue past much writhing and agony to their last game, down, 3-0 to the Spurs, starting a backcourt of Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock.

Howard lasts 21 minutes before getting himself ejected, barking at the refs as he leaves — as Tim Duncan laughs and Magic Johnson tweets, “Dwight, I’ve been swept before but I never let my team down by getting kicked out of the game.”

The Spurs kick their butts again. The fans serenade D’Antoni with their new favorite chant, “We want Phil!” Magic tweets he’s “sooooooooooo happy” the wretched season is over.

Cut to the off-season, with everything on hold until they see if Howard will deign to take $118 million or $85 million somewhere else.

Doesn’t sound like a hard choice, you say?

Financial security following back surgery. Proud organization, long the NBA stars’ destination of choice? Southern California lifestyle. Enhanced access to your fellow stars of stage and screen?

july1Howard hasn’t given as much as a hint about staying, from his introductory press conference to Tuesday’s final session with the press.

If Dwight seemed to include himself in the Lakers’ future after Sunday’s game (“We’ll get an opportunity to get some rest… think about what we can all do to better ourselves”), he made sure he immediately quashed that hope.

“Does that mean you’re leaning toward staying,” asked Yahoo’s Marc Spears, “or am I reading too much into it?”

“You’re reading too much into it,” said Howard, returning to his Man-of-Mystery persona.

This prompted a tirade from Shaquille O’Neal on the TNT studio show (“He’s going to do what he did in Orlando. He’s going to play with people.”)

Unfortunately, the Lakers have to submit to being played with since losing their only star under 32 is even worse than bringing up Man-Child.

Howard isn’t officially a free agent until July 1. If insiders expect him to stay, no one expects him to divulge his plans one minute before.

If Howard stays, Kobe Bryant makes it back by the opener, as he has vowed to do, and Nash holds up for more than this season’s 50 games, the Lakers still have problems.

It was owner Jerry Buss, who nixed Phil Jackson for D’Antoni—although Jim Buss still gets the blame in the local papers—with the paterfamilias dreaming of a return to Showtime.

Unfortunately, the aging, hulking roster D’Antoni found wasn’t remotely capable of playing his uptempo game–and that was before he found out Howard couldn’t run the scheme’s fundamental play.

Pau-Gasol4Speeding up would require reshaping the roster, which is overdue–if not timely with the need to get under the luxury tax threshold after next season.

The Lakes have paid the luxury tax as long as there has been one. But new, punitive rules are about to kick in, that would make the tax for this season’s $30 million overage—now $30 million–$100 million.

In Tueday’s exit interviews at the practice facility in El Segundo, Bryant made a plea to keep Pau Gasol, bring this team back and sock the ball inside, as they did in their closing 28-12 run. D’Antoni said he’ll play this way if this team is back.

Frankly, It was the first time it occurred to me that they could bring these slugs back. On the other hand, with a slim chance of putting Gasol on the market and coming out of it looking like the Suns, slow is the way to go next season, after which almost all their money will come off the cap and the transition can begin.

Of course, it all depends on keeping Howard. Amid all the hopes for the future voiced by the Lakers Tuesday, he remained Dwight Howard.

Someone asked if the time since the season’s end had given him time to reflect on his future with the Lakers.

“It’s only been 24 hours,” said Howard.

Just be glad your summer will be better than theirs.

Mark Heisler is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops, LakersNation and the Old Gray Lady. His power rankings appear every Wednesday during the regular season, and his columns and video reports appear regularly here. Follow him on Twitter.

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  1. mike lang says:

    I’d sign Howard but only if he spent the summer working with Kareem on (in no particular order): on-court focus; pick-n-roll offense, free throws, court vision. Otherwise, sign-n-trade for an athletic young small forward and/or point guard. The talent is there; an indication from him that he’s serious about improving and competing doesn’t seem like too much to ask for $110 million…..

    • Alek Samm says:

      @Mike: Yeah, seriously. A 100+ million is a lot to gamble on for the next couple of years when the guy you’re gambling on is such a headcase, waffler and offensively limited. I know the Lakers don’t want to scratch build and let him walk and find some other talent to build around because they would look bad. But I’d rather them plummet than sign this guy who’s half commited.

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