Los Angeles Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss spoke at length about his team's struggles in the 2012-13 NBA season during an interview with ESPNLA 710 radio on Thursday. But when the conversation turned to Dwight Howard, he confidently predicted that the Lakers have a "95 percent" chance to re-sign him this off-season. The Lakers engineered a blockbuster, four-team trade in August to land Howard, but the 27-year-old big man declined to sign an extension upon his arrival in LA.
However, Howard likely held off because he can earn so much extra money by waiting. An extension back in August would have maxed out at a three-year, $60 million deal, but when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, the new pact can reach five years and $100 million. The Lakers can offer him more money and more years than any other team in the NBA, per the terms of the league's collective bargaining agreement, but Buss thinks the pitch to Howard is strong for reasons beyond the money:
"If we make the playoffs, that means we're playing well and I think we'll go deep in the playoffs and it's a no-brainer that he stays," Buss said. "I think if it continues to fall apart because of injuries, I'm hoping we can convince him, 'Look, everybody was injured, you weren't 100 percent for the whole year, let's give it another shot next year.'
"It points to 95 percent that we'll be able to keep him. I can't control what he does, but I can sure make a great argument."
Perhaps the 95 percent figure for Howard's return is less compelling than the less-than-100-percent note on his health. Despite all the concern about the offense, the Lakers have been particularly underwhelming on defense this year. Howard used to be known as the best interior defender on the planet, but he hasn't looked the same since undergoing surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back in April of 2012. At the moment, he's also dealing with a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
The explosive burst on defensive rotations and the top-flight mobility in the paint are things Howard has yet to recapture as a member of the Lakers, and his usually stellar defensive numbers have taken a hit. The Lakers have allowed 103.8 points per 100 possessions on defense this season (the No. 21 mark in the NBA), and when Howard is on the floor that number only shrinks by one point -- which makes LA an average defensive team.
If Howard is no longer the hyper-athlete he was in Orlando, it's possible his value will need to be re-calibrated by the league. However, the Lakers have an ownership group that's unafraid of the luxury tax and wholly committed to winning NBA championships in perpetuity, so it's unlikely that the money will be an issue in LA. Even so, it will be interesting to see if Howard can live up to the expectations that will come along with his next big deal.