Dwight Howard returning to the Los Angeles Lakers is far from certain. Lakers management, however, appears to have a contingency plan if the All-Star center departs in free agency: get their finances in order. The plan could prepare them to make a push for current Miami Heat star LeBron James, who likely will opt out of his contract after the 2013-14 season.
The Lakers want Howard, but so do a number of other teams. Although sign-and-trade rumors for the Los Angeles Clippers' Blake Griffin or the Houston Rockets' Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik are growing, they are unlikely to happen. If Howard is to leave, ESPN sources say the Lakers will let him walk.
Salary cap space. The Lakers are way over and likely facing another year of paying the luxury tax. Although the tax is manageable now, the cost for violating the tax sky rockets after the 2014-15 season when the "repeater" tax goes into effect. Letting Howard walk, if he chooses, would subsequently create nearly $50 million in cap space for L.A. to help financially prepare them to go after a big-name free agent.
If Howard bolts, Los Angeles might stick with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash as their "Big Three" lineup next season. Bryant would hate it, but the team would be preparing for the future. The Lakers would have even more cap room the following season after Bryant (one-year, $30.5 million) and Gasol's (one-year, $19.3 million) contracts expire. It's right on time for the start of the 2014-15 season - when James is expected to opt out of his contract with Miami.
James can terminate his deal on June 30, 2014. Even if he chooses to stay in Miami, he'll likely opt out in order to sign a new, five-year deal - something he can't do if he signs an extension, as ESPN's Brian Windhorst points out.
This window, however small, is the Lakers' chance to make a play for James if they choose to. If the four-time MVP chooses to stay in Miami, the team's future is iffy at best. The aforementioned repeater tax would go in to effect the following summer, making it incredibly costly and nearly impossible for the Heat to retain its current roster.
The tax is designed to punish teams who routinely violate the luxury tax by raising the penalties. The repeater tax "could triple or even quadruple what the Heat would pay in tax in 2014 if Wade, Bosh and James were to re-sign."
Although Heat owner Mickey Arison has forked over the cash thus far to keep his roster intact, even his pockets go but so deep. League revenues aren't expected to increase over the next few years, and the league's TV contracts don't expire until 2016, according to Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated. That makes it unlikely the league would raise the threshold, which would've helped Arison keep a strong team.
Arison needs to get creative with his roster. To avoid the repeater tax, a team must be below the luxury tax threshold for two years within a five-year span. Chris Bosh seems the most likely option to leave, whether traded or simply not re-signed.
Even if it becomes just James and Wade, there's no telling down the road what level Wade will be playing at or if the Heat can assemble a competitive supporting cast around James. Shane Battier and Ray Allen are only getting older, and the new Collective Bargaining Agreement makes it difficult for a team over the tax apron to acquire new players (ie; restrictions on sign-and-trades for teams over the apron, starting 2013-14). The Heat also traded away four first-round picks to make their super team, which makes it impossible to immediately rebuild through the draft.
By opting out, James could choose where he finishes his career. It could be that Miami no longer gives him the best chance of winning another championship after next season. It's difficult to look ahead, but there is a chance James leaves Miami - be it for Los Angeles, another big market city with a history of great players, or even Cleveland to finish what he started.
The biggest obstacle for the Lakers going after James is timing. Bryant's window is closing; he won't want to chalk up a season so the Lakers can prepare for the 2014-15 season. He wants to win now. The team can't begin to prepare for their future until they know Howard's decision.
Everything is waiting on him.