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Dwight Howard's departure leaves Lakers pondering a wide-open future

Pau Gasol (right) will have to step up next season with Dwight Howard gone and Kobe Bryant recovering from an Achilles injury.Pau Gasol (right) will have to step up next season with Dwight Howard gone and Kobe Bryant recovering from an Achilles injury. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Over the past 15 years, the Lakers have built and bridged empires through stout basketball operation and uncanny good fortune. They've run through a wealth of basketball riches that might seem incomprehensible to some of the league's long-suffering franchises, and in the process become both beloved and reviled, largely because of a string of star player pairings that goes beyond the serendipitous.

When it comes to the acquisition of prized players, the Lakers seem to get their way -- be it in the signing of Shaquille O'Neal, the re-signing and appeasement of Kobe Bryant, the acquisition of Pau Gasol, the fulfillment of a long-rumored trade for Dwight Howard or even in flipping a few draft picks to land Steve Nash. All teams have grand designs, but the Lakers seem to follow through on their pipe dreams at an outrageous rate.

That appears to have changed in the last week. Howard has opted to switch teams just a year after landing in Los Angeles despite the Lakers' most deliberate efforts to woo him. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak fully understood how outstanding Howard could be when healthy and what value the league's preeminent center would offer L.A.'s aging core. But Howard ultimately chose to go elsewhere, proof enough that the Lakers' aura might well be extinguishing.

As a franchise-changing superstar departs for Houston, so begins the Lakers' new order -- that of a franchise with high-level players but little momentum. L.A. is due for a renovation unlike any it has seen since 1997, as Howard's exodus and Bryant's drift toward retirement have put the Lakers in a position to build up from a relatively blank slate.

Before that opportunity even arises, however, the Lakers will need to play out what may well be their least promising season since their 34-win campaign in the wake of trading O'Neal to Miami in 2004. Bryant, Gasol and Nash will still be Lakers, but Kobe will start his season rehabbing from a torn Achilles tendon while the rest of the roster aches for more reliable contributors. In fact, with the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Rockets, Grizzlies and Warriors all heavy favorites to make the postseason, and the Nuggets, Trail Blazers, Timberwolves, Pelicans and perhaps Mavericks fighting for the final two slots, it's entirely possible that the Lakers slide out of the playoffs altogether. L.A. was able to scrape together just enough to make the cut last time around, but the void left by Howard's departure positions the Lakers to be an even more disastrous defensive team next season with no guarantee of offensive solvency.

GOLLIVER: Winners and losers in Howard signing | Why Howard left

Howard wasn't at all himself last season, but in diminished form he still stood as one of the better interior defenders in the league. His effort wasn't consistent enough and his rotations were often a full beat slow, but a lesser Howard is still a significant deterrent and a genuine difference-maker. Removing him from the back line can only hurt a team that suffers Nash's limitations and Bryant's freelancing on the perimeter, creating entirely too many problems for Gasol and his frontcourt partner to handle.

For a taste of what might soon come: In the 235 minutes that the Nash-Bryant-Gasol trio played without Howard last season, according to NBA Wowy, the Lakers surrendered 108.6 points per 100 possessions -- a fraction of a point short of the Bobcats' league-worst season average. (This isn't a very dependable sample size, but the Lakers' injury woes of a year ago leave us very little to work with in terms of specific statistical analysis.) Things should improve a bit with Gasol potentially sliding over to center and the team overall developing better chemistry, but this is still a perilous combination of flawed perimeter defense and lacking inside protection.

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There should be enough offense between the Lakers' three stars to carry L.A. to top-10 offensive efficiency if all goes according to plan, though it's tough to project specifics with Nash a persistent question mark because of age and injury, Bryant no less predictable given his massive undertaking in rehab and Gasol set for a possible positional shift. Still, as long as Nash is functional and Bryant aware of his potential limitations, that three-man combination would seem to be too balanced and viable offensively to cave.

Gasol's pending move should inspire plenty of confidence, as he was a much better scorer, rebounder and defender when operating as L.A.'s nominal center last season. The most glaring of differences comes in Gasol's shooting efficiency, which jumped from 45.4 percent (eFG%) to 51.7 percent as he slid from the 4 to the 5, per 82games.com. Positional lines are largely fluid for players as versatile as Gasol, but the combination of Howard's presence and coach Mike D'Antoni's offense put Gasol in a strange, ineffective place. His game is far more form-fitting at center for D'Antoni's Lakers than power forward, and that could play out in the season ahead.

ROSENBERG: Pressure now on Howard to lead Rockets to title

As to how much that really matters, it's honestly tough to say. There are still plenty of moves to be made across the league as free agency wraps up, but at present the Timberwolves would seem to be a safer postseason bet than the Lakers among the bubble teams competing for the final few spots. To make matters worse, the Lakers could well be cooked in their playoff hunt if Bryant's rehabilitation drags on longer than expected or Nash suffers another nagging injury -- both very real concerns given the age of the players involved (Bryant will be 35 by the start of the season, Nash 39). L.A. had a shallow roster last season even with a high-quality center logging 36 minutes a game, and it will now have to make do through potential injuries and all without Howard's presence. Early signs of trouble could quickly shift the Lakers' attention to the future; they will likely have little to scrap and claw for in 2013-14 save another early postseason exit.

That's where things get pretty interesting for the Lakers, who -- as has been made known in every assessment of Howard's decision -- will have cap space aplenty after next season. By next summer, only a single Laker will be on the books: Nash, who will make $9.7 million in the final year of his deal. Beyond that, Kupchak will be in a position to re-sign Bryant to a more cap-friendly contract (his current $30.5 million salary is tops in the league), re-up Gasol if there's mutual interest and add a max-level free agent with change to spare. There's still a lot to work out in terms of what kind of deals Bryant and Gasol might find amenable, but if the pair can be sold on Tim Duncan-/Kevin Garnett-type contracts that would pay them an average of $10 million per season, L.A. would stands to have about only $34 million in committed salary next season. (This number could drop even lower if 1) Bryant agrees to an annual salary of less than $10 million, 2) Gasol decides to sign elsewhere or 3) Nash were to be dealt before his final year under contract.)

THOMSEN: Even with Howard signing, Rockets have long way to go | Surprise of offseason

That Bryant, Nash and Gasol aren't getting any younger does make things a bit more complicated, but a blank salary-cap outlook puts the Lakers in great position to land a high-level target. In 2014, they could potentially aim for LeBron James (who has an early-termination option), Chris Bosh (ETO), Carmelo Anthony (ETO) or Dwyane Wade (ETO) if they're looking for an established star, or try for DeMarcus Cousins, Larry Sanders or Derrick Favors in restricted free agency if they'd prefer an up-and-comer. But unlike most teams with cap space, L.A. could also pocket its room and wait because there are no costly extensions set to kick in or increasing salaries that could complicate the situation going forward. If the 2014 free-agent class doesn't produce the desired targets, Kevin Love (player option), Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge could be in play for the following summer.

Further, the 2014 draft class is expected to be strong. If things go south quickly next season, the Lakers would be in position to add a quality piece early in the first round.

It would be a very different look for the Lakers to rebuild through such patient, conventional means, but such is the reality created by Howard's departure. L.A. might still have smart decision-makers and a general mystique, but the superstar it intended to rebuild around just shipped out for Texas and left one of the league's most storied franchises looking oddly ordinary.

UPDATE: The Lakers have agreed to a one-year deal with Chris Kaman and are reportedly prepared to amnesty Metta World Peace.

MORE COVERAGE: Kobe reacts to news on Instagram | Shaq on Howard

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