No matter how bad things got last season, no matter how many locker room issues were leaked, no matter how much coach-player strife eeked out the edges, no matter how many signs seemed to point to Houston, still the thought remained in most pundits' minds.
No one walks away from the Lakers.
And yet, in the end, that's exactly what Dwight Howard did. Consider this, from the New York Times' Howard Beck who covered the Lakers for years in the early 00's.
During my Laker beat days, whenever Mitch Kupchak was asked about a FA, his response was same: "We've never lost a player we wanted to keep"— Howard Beck (@HowardBeckNYT) July 6, 2013
Can't say that anymore. So the question seems to lend itself to overreaction. "The Lakers lost a marquee free agent! Barbarians at the gate! Camelot has fallen! Chaos!"
Well, not exactly.
Look, this is the Lakers. Whether it's 2014 when the Lakers will have oodles of cap space, as Ken Berger of CBSSports.com believes will be their reckoning, or the 2014 draft should they elect to tank out, or miraculously through some backwards one-sided trade like it was in 2008 with Pau Gasol, the Lakers always land on their feet. They always come up for air, they always remain in contention. Yes, they hit a rough spot in the 90's and in the mid-00's for a few years, but low and behold, things worked out.
In reality, the Lakers let Andrew Bynum's contract expire. That's the end result of all this. They gave up a pick and let Bynum's contract run out, giving them cap space a year later. That's it. That's the long-term damage from Howard signing with Houston, when you get down to the real nuts and bolts of it. And that's easily recovered from. There will always be players who want to play in LA, stars who get tired of their small-town surroundings. Whether it's Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, whoever, there will be stars who want to play for the most iconic franchise in basketball.
They'll be fine.
But if we want to look at how things changed for the Lakers Friday, we look beyond the pragmatic things, the nuts and bolts stuff. It's about a franchise that seemed, that honestly felt, invincible. Even now, the platitudes are beginning. "The Lakers don't rebuild."
Well, everyone does. Just like "No one walks away from the Lakers," eventually, everyone and everything is mortal. So the Lakers, at least at this moment in time, are mortal. They're not the constantly blessed franchise where everything goes right and every move is the right one. They made all the right moves last summer, and put together a team that should have realistically won between 58 and 65 games. Instead, they got a dumpster fire in a sewer pit. And on top of it all, they lost their most valuable asset out of that sewer pit.
This was a major moment in franchise history. But does it signify change?
On the one hand, you could argue that this is the CBA at work. The Lakers couldn't just go out and snatch up all the best other free agents to upgrade their team or offer Howard enough money to make it impossible for him to say no. They had to play within the rules and it wasn't enough. The mystique of the Lakers couldn't pull Howard back in, not with Kobe's all-intimidating (and patronizing) speeches, not with all their star power, not with Jack Nicholson. They were just another team.
And that team has a $30 million shooting guard with a major injury, a power forward/center with numerous injuries and feet that look like deli meat, and a point guard who fell apart physically when removed from the training staff that helped make him an MVP. Oh, and Metta World Peace. They've got that guy, too. Not exactly the dominant squad we once considered them.
But here's the thing. This could wind up being a trivia moment. "Hey, remember that one time that the Lakers didn't get their star free agent back?" or it could be the end of the empire, "Nothing was the same after Dwight Howard left." But what sounds more likely, that a team that has always been successful suddenly wouldn't be, or that Howard represents a bizarre outlier for the team, just as Kobe Bryant (a 13th overall pick that threatened other teams if they drafted him and became a top-five player all time) was the positive outlier.
The Lakers aren't above failure, or disaster. They're not above tanking. But they're not necessarily resigned to it. Maybe things have changed, maybe nothing has changed. But the Lakers will always have a chance at redemption, and more often than not, have come back strong.