Can Spurs Supplant Lakers, Steal Howard?
Too old, too slow and too tired to compete for an NBA Championship. In recent years, the San Antonio Spurs have been a good regular season team that fades in the playoffs, but not in the past, not this time and maybe not in the immediate future either. Of all the teams in the league, only the Los Angeles Lakers can claim a better regular season record during the time spent in their current city. The Spurs have won 61 percent of their games in San Antonio since 1977 while the Lakers have won 63.3 percent of their games in Los Angeles since 1961. Each team has only missed the postseason four times in their current cities and during the Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant eras, the teams have won four and five NBA championships respectively.
While the two teams have been almost equally dominant over the past two decades and their two superstars are entering the final years of their careers, the differences between the Spurs and the Lakers today and heading into next season are dramatic. The Spurs are back in the NBA Finals with a healthy roster and have a wealth of salary cap space heading into the offseason. The Lakers were bounced in the first round of the playoffs, have guaranteed salaries for next season of over $68 million, Bryant is injured, his return date is unknown and Dwight Howard is an unrestricted free agent sure to be wooed by plenty of teams.
Where the Lakers’ future is cloudy and possibly in decline, the Spurs won more than 70 percent of their games in each of the past three regular seasons and could add significantly to their talent base this summer. At 37 years old, Tim Duncan is still playing at a high level, in part due to head coach Gregg Popovich limiting his regular season minutes and giving him games off to rest, even if the way they go about it upsets the league office. The relatively young Tony Parker is playing some of the best basketball of his career at 31 years old and although the 35-year-old Manu Ginobili has been in marked decline over the past two seasons, the Spurs have added more than enough young, up-and-coming talent to offset the soon-to-be free agent. To add to this core, the Spurs could have the flexibility to add a maximum contract free agent this offseason.
In Bill Ingram’s recent article “Top Five Destinations For Josh Smith,” Smith was identified as a potential Spurs target. However, it’s Ingram’s math in “Why Dwight Howard Chooses Houston” that illustrates why the Spurs may be the biggest threat to the Lakers retention of their unrestricted free agent center. If Howard wants to win multiple championships right away, there would arguably be no better landing spot than San Antonio and the Spurs can make an offer that would put equal, if not more, cash in Howard’s pockets over the next four seasons than the Lakers when factoring in taxes, cost of living and that most superstars opt out after four years of max contracts.
The arguments against Smith or Howard in San Antonio go back to Popovich’s team concepts and demanding style. Players on the Spurs are expected to sacrifice for the team and these two young veterans have not been in situations where that has been demanded from them. Popovich’s coaching record suggests this would not be a problem and the experienced head coach has been more than adept at handling challenging player situations over the course of his career. If there is any situation where Smith or Howard could realize their full potential, it’s with the Spurs.
The Lakers might look at other potential suitors for Howard like the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks or Cleveland Cavaliers and believe they could persuade their superstar center that his career aspirations are more likely to be met in Los Angeles, but other than marketing opportunities, that argument would sound rather hollow if used against San Antonio. The Spurs have a proven championship-caliber head coach, multiple current All-Star teammates, a solid supporting cast and a winning organization. For the Spurs, there would be no better acquisition to set their long-time biggest rival back a few seasons than scooping up the player the Lakers plan to build their future around.
Tthe Lakers can offer the security of an extra season to Howard on his next deal, but as Steve Kyler recently pointed out, “Howard is going to listen. He is going to listen to the Lakers. He is going to listen to the Rockets and he’ll likely listen to Dallas, Atlanta, Brooklyn, Golden State and if Cleveland wants to swing by he’ll likely listen to them too. Howard has recently changed his circle of influence. His father is back in the picture in a big way and they are urging him to listen and to find the situation that makes him happy.”
If Howard really wants to be happy, and win, he’ll listen to the Spurs as well.