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Kupchak, Lakers await Howard decision

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — If the Lakers don’t manage to lure Dwight Howard back to Los Angeles in the coming weeks, the team has a clear-cut Plan B, which in fact isn’t all that different than its Plan A.

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak spoke at length after Thursday’s NBA Draft about his team’s goals in free agency, and after months of complicated discussions of the team’s salary cap and Howard’s myriad options, he offered at least a moment of simplicity.

With the way the team’s financial situation stands, it has no more flexibility with the rest of its roster if Howard were to leave than if he chooses to stay, Kupchak said. The big man’s decision as to his 2013-14 destination will not change the way the Lakers approach the rest of free agency, and though there will be a gaping hole in their roster if Howard chooses to bolt, it’ll hardly have some kind of domino effect on the rest of the team’s summer plans.

As things stand, the Lakers will have their mini mid-level exception of $3.18 million per year as well as veteran’s minimum contracts at their disposal to offer to free agents other than Howard. It’s not exactly ideal, but it’s also set in stone, which at least allows the Lakers to evaluate their options from the moment free agency begins. On Thursday, Kupchak stressed the inflexible nature of the team’s position while also highlighting that no matter what, its options will increase markedly in 2014-15.

“The good thing going forward for us is that we do have a lot of financial flexibility a year from now, so we hope to field a very competitive team next year,” he said. “Certainly there’s question marks … with Steve Nash and Dwight, but we think we can be a very competitive team. And then the year after that, we’ve got an enormous amount of financial flexibility.”

There’s a silver lining to it all, as well. As much as the Lakers shy away from the term “rebuild,” if Howard were to part ways with the team, it would hardly be stuck in the middle-of-the-pack limbo that Kupchak characterized as the worst position of all for NBA franchises. With the current collective bargaining agreement and the way talent is allotted in the draft, the worst outcome, Kupchak said, is to be saddled with mediocre players inked to long-term contracts.

Next summer, Howard could be the only Laker signed to a long-term deal, or the team could have no one on its books at all. There won’t be contracts to dump or trades to attempt to finagle. It’ll be simple: the Lakers will have money, and they’ll have the allure that’s attracted players for decades.

It’s hard to look so far forward, though, with such a major decision looming, and Kupchak scoffed at the suggestion that he might look forward to the excitement of free agency. For now, the team’s focus is Howard and Howard alone, and it hopes he’ll make his decision as quickly as possible.

That said, Kupchak admitted that this summer’s process is eerily similar to what went on in 2004 with Kobe Bryant. The waiting, the visits with other teams, the brewing drama – he’s seen all of it before. The only difference, of course, was that during that summer the team was coming off a loss in the NBA Finals, not a first-round collapse. Losing changes things. It heightens tensions and dims the allure of Tinseltown, and it’s hard not to see the glaring difference between that summer nearly a decade ago and 2013.

“It’s really simple,” Kupchak said. “At the end of a losing season, nobody’s happy.”

Expressing mock surprise at the dearth of questions about the team’s lone draft pick, Duke’s Ryan Kelly, Kupchak seemed almost exhausted by the process of discussing Howard, but he hardly minced words. When questioned about the possibility of a sign-and-trade, he was blunt: “If he wants to leave, he can just leave,” the general manager said, giving the sense that the team isn’t willing to explore such options if Howard elects to move on to another city.

For now, though, the focus is on July 1, which is looming ever closer. That’s why the “Stay” billboards popped up on Wednesday; the team wants to demonstrate as clearly as it can where it stands. It wants Howard in Los Angeles.

“We wanted to be as aggressive and proactive as possible … without going overboard,” Kupchak said.

“The message is simple: We care about you, and we want you to stay.”

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