For the majority of NBA teams and their respective fan bases, each season is all about the journey. Only a select few have a real shot at winning a championship, so success is relative and can be judged on everything from individual player improvement to year-over-year win totals, or on whether or not a team simply made the playoffs.
In Los Angeles, for the Lakers, the opposite is true. The journey does not matter; it’s all about the result.
Dwight Howard has finally been added to the star-studded Laker lineup, essentially in exchange for Andrew Bynum. With Howard in the fold alongside Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace, L.A. has the best starting five in the league, and it isn’t close. With that great power comes great responsibility, of course, in that anything less than a Lakers championship next season will be considered a disappointment, and rightfully so.
Now, championship-or-bust isn’t exactly a fun way to go through an entire season — just ask the 2011 Miami Heat about that. The Lakers may, however, have to deal with something that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh didn’t in that first season together in Miami: the added pressure of having to win a title in their very first season together, if they want to stay together.
Howard is an unrestricted free agent after next season, and will sign nothing less than a max contract once he hits the open market. While the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement would allow him to net in the neighborhood of $30 million more over the life of his next deal if he stayed in L.A., money may not be everything to a player who already will have over $100 million in career earnings — even before we count endorsements — when the time comes for him to decide where he’ll play next. Additionally, let’s not forget that Howard is recovering from back surgery, and we have yet to see how quickly he may or may not return to form following his rehabilitation.
Besides the injury issue and the fact that Dwight can simply up and leave at the end of the season if he feels like it, the Lakers may think very carefully about wanting him back at the price he’ll command if he can’t mesh with the rest of the roster, pulls any of the bad teammate routine we saw from him last year in Orlando, or ends up being less than 100 percent of the player we’ve seen him be in the past.
While it seems likely that the Lakers would try to keep Howard in order to have a star in Los Angeles to build around once Bryant retires, nothing is guaranteed there because L.A. has legitimate salary concerns after next season. In 2014, Bryant is slated to make over $30 million, and Gasol will be in the last year of a deal that will pay him greater than $19 million. If Gasol doesn’t bounce back from a disappointing season, it’s reasonable to believe that the Lakers may look to move that expiring contract to cut payroll and avoid having to pay him big dollars in free agency.
All of this is to say that for the Lakers, the time is now. The acquisitions of Howard and Nash have put the team in the enviable spot of being one of the favorites to take home the title. And while the team’s journey should certainly be compelling, if the end result is anything less than a 17th NBA championship, it may be the only chance given to the team’s core to win it as currently constructed.