Kobe or Dwight? That's the question the Los Angeles Lakers might have to ask themselves today if they don't believe Dwight Howard will re-sign with the Lakers as a free agent this summer because of his reported icy relationship with Kobe Bryant.
Since a sign-and-trade deal would be unlikely, the Lakers risk Howard leaving after the season for nothing -- unless they deal him by the 3 p.m. ET deadline. So despite general manager Mitch Kupchak's insistence that the team will not trade Howard, the Lakers have to at least discuss the possibility internally. And that may come down to a choice between Howard or Bryant.
If the Lakers don't decide now, Howard will likely have the leverage this summer to force a decision, if he wants to -- teams such as Dallas, Atlanta and Houston are reportedly eager to bid for his talents when he reaches free agency. If Howard has other good options, then he can tell the Lakers: Kobe or me.
While the Lakers cannot trade Bryant without his consent (Bryant has a no-trade provision in his contract), they can twist his arm. At the same time, Bryant has a type of leverage too, as by far the most popular Laker since Magic Johnson and an iconic superstar.
But if Howard insists that the Lakers get rid of Bryant, they can -- the Lakers still have their amnesty rights, and Bryant is due to make more than $30 million next season, the last year of his contract. The Lakers would still have to pay him, but such a move might allow them to avoid the luxury tax, which would save them his entire salary in 2013-14 and tens of millions of dollars over the long term by dodging the stiffer "repeater" tax penalties in the new collective bargaining agreement.
Looming over everything is the summer of 2014. That's when the Lakers have timed the expiration of every contract on the books except Steve Nash's, giving them the opportunity to bid on a free-agent class that just happens to be headlined by one LeBron James.
The summer of 2010, when James signed with Miami, taught us two things about max free agency. First, star players are more likely to sign with teams that have cap space rather than working sign-and-trades to teams over the cap. Second, they want to land somewhere with an established star like the Heat's Dwyane Wade in order to maximize their chances of winning championships.
For the Lakers to answer the "Kobe or Dwight?" question, they need to decide which player will be a better player and bigger lure in 2014. Let's explore.
The Case for Dwight
This is obvious, right? When confronted with a choice between a 27-year-old star in his prime and an aging 34-year-old legend, the younger player is the right choice every time. Besides sentiment, there's nothing to favor Bryant over Howard going forward.
At best, Bryant has maybe three years left as an elite player; even his idol, Michael Jordan, was no longer capable of playing at an elite level when he returned to the NBA at age 38. And Jordan didn't have nearly the wear and tear that Bryant carries on his knees after entering the league directly out of high school. Bryant is already 13th in NBA history in minutes played. All the trips to Germany in the world can't entirely offset the effects of aging, and Howard will likely still be an All-Star when Bryant heads off to retirement.
Even in the worst season of his prime, while returning from back surgery and dealing with a painful shoulder labrum tear, Howard has put up All-Star statistics. The injuries are the most obvious explanation for Howard's inconsistency. Some nights he lacks the quickness and explosiveness that made him the NBA's premier post player. Other times, like Wednesday's 24-point, 12-rebound effort in an easy win over the Boston Celtics, show Howard's potential to change the Lakers when he's 100 percent. They're 10-5 this season when he scores at least 20 points.
Bryant is the Lakers' recent past, and right now he's also their present. However, Kupchak summed it up well Wednesday on "The Herd with Colin Cowherd" on ESPN Radio, saying "Dwight is our future."
Free agents will recognize the same thing. Beyond that, any star perimeter player joining Bryant will have to adjust to a Kobe-centric offense, as Nash has tried to do this season. Howard's game should fit better with that of anyone who joins him in L.A. as part of the next great Lakers team.
The Case for Kobe
Besides the fact that Bryant playing in anything but a Lakers uniform is borderline unthinkable, there are legitimate basketball reasons to defy the obvious answer and favor Bryant over Howard.
First, let's be clear that, no matter the age difference, Bryant today is the superior player. Not only has he performed better on a per-minute basis, but he has been a model of health while Howard has been in and out of the lineup. The combination means Bryant has been more than two wins more valuable than Howard this season per my WARP rating.
That rating still reflects an optimistic view of Howard's play this season. Plus-minus takes a dimmer view. The Lakers have scored more efficiently with Howard on the bench, according to 82games.com, despite the fact that their bench has been so ineffective, and have a better net rating (plus-6.6 points per 100 possessions) with Pau Gasol in the middle rather than Howard (plus-1.8).
Injuries might explain that, but Howard's full recovery is no sure thing. Back surgery for a superstar player is uncharted territory. Re-signing Howard represents a risk in its own right.
Bryant won't play forever, but that gives him the opportunity to hand control of the team to a star player the Lakers add in the summer of 2014. His all-encompassing desire to win might be much more appealing to some free agents than Howard's antics in the locker room and on the sideline.
There's also an intriguing possibility in the summer of 2014. Since Bryant will be a free agent himself, he could decide to prioritize the chase for another ring over another fat payday. (A sixth ring brings a measure of equality with Michael Jordan, who used titles as a criteria in ranking Bryant over LeBron James in Wright Thompson's MJ feature story at ESPN last week.) If Bryant takes a pay cut from his current $27.85 million salary down to, say, $10 million for one season, the Lakers would have enough flexibility for two max players on the payroll. The kicker? Bryant could double his salary by signing a new contract the following year, when the only hit to the Lakers would be a heftier luxury-tax bill.
Almost any other team in the league would love to have to choose between Bryant and Howard, but the decision would nearly be impossible for the Lakers to make.
Ultimately, sentiment aside, youth carries the day. The risk of Howard's injuries is not as troublesome as the inevitability of Bryant aging, and prospective 2014 free agents are smart enough to recognize that their window of championship contention would be larger with Howard as a teammate than Bryant.
The Lakers have to hope that it never comes to that and that their future includes both Bryant and Howard -- along with whomever else they can add to the roster after next season.