The Lakers have sent signals over the past few weeks that, with NBA free agency opening, they would be willing to bring back reserve center Dwight Howard, whose spot in the rotation may have been settled by the decision of starter JaVale McGee to opt into the second year of his contract, keeping him on the Lakers’ roster for next season at $4.2 million.
Howard has been pretty blunt—he is expecting a raise.
Those two facts could very well put Howard and the Lakers in irreconcilable conflict. The Lakers only have so much of their midlevel exception, worth about $9.3 million, to offer free agents and it will be their best tool for filling out a roster that has added Dennis Schroder but will lose Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, Quinn Cook and could possibly lose Avery Bradley and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
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Appearing on ESPN 710 in Los Angeles, analyst and former Nets executive Bobby Marks suggested that Howard likely will be out of the Lakers’ price range (H/T @TheLakersReview):
When it comes to Dwight … you can pay him up to $3 million or you can take some out of your exception. I don’t know if I’d want to go in that direction there as far as paying him $5 million, $6 million. This is a deep free agent pool of centers so if it’s not Dwight, I think you can go out and get one. Maybe it’s a guy like Nerlens Noel to kind of fill that role.
Lakers Can Offer Dwight Howard Bi-Annual Exception
With so many spots needing to be addressed, the Lakers will only spend a limited amount on centers, and with McGee’s contract already set, they are unlikely to want to spend more on his backup than they are for McGee as a starter. McGee and Howard combined to play only about 36 minutes last season because star big man Anthony Davis handled the center role for significant stretches. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Davis played 40% of his minutes at center.
Davis, who is also a free agent, is expected to sign a maximum contract with the team. The Lakers could look to pay Caldwell-Pope to stick around, too. The Lakers are able to pay those players more because they have their Bird Rights, which means their contracts are exceptions to the salary cap. They do not have Bird Rights on Howard, so keeping him must be done by using other execptions.
The Lakers have a limited number of avenues to bring in players. They could—and likely will—split up their $9.3 million midlevel exception, though they are likely only to split it into two parts to attract better players.
They have the $3.6 million bi-annual exception available, too, and Marks is suggesting that is what they can offer Howard. They would like, too, to bring back Markieff Morris, who got some minutes as a backup small-ball center, too. If Howard goes elsewhere, Morris could wind up with the $3.6 million slot.
It should be pointed out that in projecting what Howard could get on the free-agent market this offseason, Marks predicted $4-6 million. That would price him out of the Lakers’ range. Whether Howard comes back, then, could depend on whether he is willing to accept $3.6 million or if he is going elsewhere to cash in on a productive championship season with the Lakers.
Plenty of Potential Dwight Howard Replacements on the FA Market
Howard was, no doubt, productive last year. McGee was the starter and played 16.6 minutes per game, but Howard played more (18.9 minutes) and posted impressive numbers: 7.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.1 blocked shots. He also showed a willingness to be a role player, something he had struggled to do in other places. That could attract more suitors with free agency opening up and drive up Howard’s price.
But, as Marks referenced, the Lakers can likely get good backup production at a cheap price because there is a flood of centers on the market. Nerlens Noel, of Oklahoma City, could be one option. The list, though, is long: Sacramento’s Alex Len, Miami’s Meyers Leonard, Charlotte’s Bismack Biyombo, Detroit’s John Henson, Milwaukee’s Robin Lopez and, of course, former Laker DeMarcus Cousins.
There are more, too. It is a wide market and that won’t help Howard find a spot on a Lakers team that needs to be careful with how it handles its exception money. If he accepts a deal worth $3.6 million, if the familiarity with the team and the chance to win another championship matter most to him, he could be back. But there’s only so much the Lakers can pay him.