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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Fast-approaching offseason critical for Lakers

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Above all else, this stunning series between the Lakers and Mavericks has been about one of our generation's greatest players exerting his influence the way Hall of Famers do. It has not been Kobe Bryant, but rather Dirk Nowitzki who has awakened the basketball world to his brilliance.

But even in experiencing one of his crowning achievements -- toppling the mighty Lakers, which will happen unless the dysfunctional, two-time defending champs manage to become the first NBA team to recover from a 3-0 playoff deficit -- Nowitzki must take a back seat. This comes with the territory when you drive a stake through the heart of a dynasty, when you put the greatest basketball champion since Michael Jordan in an impossible predicament like this.

An L.A.-Orlando swap would boost Kobe Bryant, put Dwight Howard in a preferred destination and give his old team some relief. (Getty Images)  
An L.A.-Orlando swap would boost Kobe Bryant, put Dwight Howard in a preferred destination and give his old team some relief. (Getty Images)  
Barring an unprecedented collapse, there will be plenty of time to appreciate the Mavs and Nowitzki's accomplishments as we embark on the most important and treacherous weeks of the playoffs. But now, with the Lakers' dynasty on life support heading into an elimination game Sunday in Dallas, the focus is on the team that braved this brutal season of survival for three years running. Nowitzki's cold-blooded artistry has staggered the Lakers, left them in emotional disarray and pushed them to a crossroads that will usher in a summer of discontent and major changes.

Nowitzki's dominance has highlighted not only his marksmanship for the basket but also for the very soul of a champion, exposing the Lakers' flaws in ways we haven't seen since they lost in five games to the Suns in the 2007 first round. That humiliation led to the return of Derek Fisher and the deadline trade for Pau Gasol, resulting in three straight Finals appearances and two titles.

This collapse will spawn an even deeper exercise in soul-searching, though without the Zen-like reflections of Jackson, who has said this is his final season.

Fisher already has alluded to the fact that "buttons will be pushed" if the Lakers fall short of a third straight championship. One of those is the reset button. It isn't too early to explore what options are at general manager Mitch Kupchak's disposal if he is to avoid wasting what are likely to be the two productive years Bryant, after 15 years of relentlessly pursuing greatness, has left.

The Lakers have known internally for weeks that shaky guard play could undo them in the playoffs. Fisher and Steve Blake, with 10 baskets and three 3-pointers between them in the first three games, have made their worst fears come true. It was at Bryant's insistence that the Lakers re-signed Fisher last summer, and Fisher's decline has been a supporting story line in the Lakers' demise.

The Lakers weren't counting on Gasol's disappearing act, nor were they expecting Ron Artest -- the darling and savior of last spring's championship run -- to get himself suspended for the most important game of the season. Combine all that with Lamar Odom's maddening inconsistency, stunningly bad defensive rotations, and ongoing "trust issues," as Andrew Bynum so aptly diagnosed, the Lakers' predicament is decidedly grim. Their future, however, is even more so.

Under even the most optimistic view of the 2011-12 salary cap, the Lakers are poised to exceed it by a good $40 million. Same goes for the luxury tax; if there is one in the new CBA, owner Jerry Buss can plan on writing at least a $27 million check to the Kings and Timberwolves of the world for his star-studded payroll.

So what is a shaken dynasty to do? Well, what the Lakers lack in payroll flexibility, they more than atone for with tradable assets. And it's time to start wondering what those assets -- namely, Gasol, Bynum and Odom -- might yield before Bryant's final years are needlessly wasted.

Exhibit A in such a scenario is Magic center Dwight Howard, whose own team is at a similarly hopeless crossroads. Motivated by Miami's summer smorgasbord of free agents, the Magic panicked when they re-acquired Hedo Turkoglu and tried to resurrect Gilbert Arenas' sagging career. Orlando, with an expensive new arena to pay for, owes Turkoglu and Arenas $66.5 million over the next two seasons. With Howard approaching free agency, that's a recipe for disaster regardless of how the new collective bargaining agreement turns out.

Of the teams Howard is likely to consider when exercising his early-termination option after next season -- sources say the Lakers, Knicks and Nets are the strong favorites -- L.A. is the one with the most attractive trade assets. The massive contracts attached to the Lakers' most desirable players also puts them in the rare position of being able to absorb either Arenas or Turkoglu as a way to soften the blow for Orlando.

"Everybody knows that Dwight Howard wants to be a Laker," said a person familiar with the All-Star center's plans. "They're going to lose Dwight Howard for nothing. He's not staying there. Dwight Howard is going to be in the same mode as LeBron James."

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So would the Magic, facing the reality of losing their franchise cornerstone and getting nothing in return, accept Gasol and Odom, Bynum and Odom, or even Bynum and Gasol as the centerpiece of a Howard trade?

"Probably," said a high-profile agent with a hand in past maneuverings for both teams.

The clincher, under current CBA rules that would govern any trades conducted before the deal expires July 1, would be assembling salaries in a way that would allow Orlando to get out from under their massive and ill-advised obligations to Turkloglu and/or Arenas. In all likelihood, the Lakers are the only team with the salaries and commensurate talent to pull it off.

If you're the Magic, staring at an uncertain future with limited flexibility to build around Howard, you would feel pretty good about getting one of the world's most skilled power forwards (Gasol), the only center in the league with the potential to rival Howard (Bynum, with an asterisk due to his history of knee injuries), or the league's best sixth man (Odom, who has the ability to be so much more as a starter). Any one of them would be a better asset than Cleveland (James), Toronto (Chris Bosh), Denver (Carmelo Anthony), or Utah (Deron Williams) got for its departing superstar. Two of them would be a haul of talent that Magic GM Otis Smith simply wouldn't be able to turn down.

As for the Lakers, blowing up a team that won the past two championships would take careful deliberation. Executive vice president Jim Buss has consistently quashed any notion of trading Bynum, and Gasol did deliver Bryant's fourth and fifth championship rings despite his abysmal showing in the Dallas series. And Odom?

"No one wants to trade Lamar Odom," said a person familiar with the Lakers' thinking. "But at a certain point, you don't have a choice. You've got to rebuild it."

Jerry Buss has built three Lakers dynasties; not one, three. This time, the stakes are higher than ever. He has Bryant's legacy to consider, as well as, in all likelihood, a new coach.

Would acquiring Howard be enough to breathe new life into Bryant's pursuit of tying, or perhaps surpassing Jordan's mark of six championships? It depends on the price and how the Lakers solve their point-guard dilemma in the process. And speaking of which, there are two solutions other than Howard that would provide the Lakers with a different path to the same goal: Williams and Chris Paul, two elite point guards whose immediate futures in New Jersey and New Orleans, respectively, are anything but settled.

The Nets are more focused on acquiring a top-tier talent to pair with Williams as they prepare for their move to Brooklyn in 2012, and Howard is most certainly at the top of their list. But would New Orleans, facing the same 2012 opt-out dilemma with Paul, be tempted by a Lakers package featuring one or two of the most skilled big men anywhere in the world? It would be a conversation starter, to say the least.

And that's what the Lakers' summer will be filled with -- conversations about the future, instead of celebrations of another title.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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