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  1. For the Los Angeles Lakers, there's always next year.
  2.  
  3. As tough as it might be to hear for Lakers fans, the writing is on the wall. Their biggest hope for their next franchise cornerstone, Dwight Howard, reportedly just spurned them to play for the Houston Rockets. Their face of the franchise, Kobe Bryant, is almost 35 years old and ruptured his Achilles tendon in April, which could sideline him for the beginning of the season or longer.
  4.  
  5. If that's not bad enough, the rest of the Lakers' core battled significant injuries last season and find themselves on the wrong side of 30. So, what now?
  6.  
  7. The Lakers need to hit the lottery.
  8.  
  9. All things considered, the Lakers have little choice but to look beyond the upcoming season and focus their efforts on the blockbuster summer of 2014. Because as of now, there's a good chance that the Lakers could be lottery-bound for the first time since the Chucky Atkins era of 2004-05.
  10.  
  11. And that should be the plan. If there was a time to forget about winning in the short term, clear off the books and carve out as much shopping dough as possible, now is the time to do it in preparation for next summer.
  12.  
  13.  
  14. That's when LeBron James along with Carmelo Anthony, John Wall (if he doesn't sign an extension with Washington), Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki can all become free agents. Next summer will also bring perhaps the most anticipated draft class since 2003, starring, in all likelihood, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle and Andrew Harrison.
  15.  
  16. Now that Howard is gone and Bryant will be closer to 40 than 30 by the time the season starts, it's time for the Lakers to turn their attention to finding their future star. Losing a ton of games may give them their best shot.
  17.  
  18. A Howard-less world
  19. Life without Howard won't be easy in Los Angeles. Despite the off-court antics and nagging injuries, Howard was a pretty darn good player last season. Sure, he couldn't hit a free throw even if a truckload of M&Ms depended on it, but he led the league in rebounding with 12.4 boards per game, scored 17.1 points per game on 57.8 percent shooting and posted a 19.5 PER with a torn labrum and bad back.
  20.  
  21. His absence will hurt mostly on the defensive end. According to NBA.com stats, the Lakers' D fell apart when Howard was on the bench last season, allowing 107.8 points per 100 possessions, which would have been good for 29th in the NBA last season. All in all, the Lakers were outscored by 1.1 points per 100 possessions with Howard sitting, but outscored opponents by 3.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
  22.  
  23. Without Howard, the Lakers will struggle to put together a league-average defense next season, even if it means that Pau Gasol goes to his more natural position at the 5. With Earl Clark reportedly leaving for Cleveland, Jordan Hill remains the only power forward on the roster if we're not counting Metta World Peace, who succeeded in that slot only with Howard backing him up.
  24.  
  25. But he's gone and not only that, he'll be joining a Western Conference rival. That should be enough to convince the Lakers to punt 2013-14 and start from scratch.
  26.  
  27. The amnesty question
  28. The post-Howard rebuild can begin now, starting with Kobe Bryant's contract. Though it's unlikely, the Lakers could wipe the $30.5 million that he's due in 2013-14 off the books and waive Bryant under the amnesty provision. With $79.8 million already committed for 2013-14, using the amnesty clause could save the Lakers millions in tax penalties, but they would consider such a public relations disaster only if Bryant's recovery from April surgery to repair his torn Achilles has gone poorly.
  29.  
  30. However, all indications are that Bryant is shooting for a return on opening night. But that's probably a long shot seeing as Chauncey Billups suffered the same injury at a similar age in February of 2012 and needed an entire calendar year to recover. What would a year of recovery mean for Bryant? He'd be back just in time for the last two weeks of the regular season. In other words, it wouldn't be out of the question for Bryant to miss all of 2013-14. And deep down, the Lakers might like it if he did. More pingpong balls come late June.
  31.  
  32. The Lakers could also use the amnesty provision on Pau Gasol ($19.3 million) or Metta World Peace ($7.7 million), but Howard's departure makes the amnesty provision less likely. They have other ways to shed money, however.
  33.  
  34. Nash next to leave?
  35. If you've been paying attention the past few years, you've noticed that the Lakers are positioning themselves for a big splash in the summer of 2014, much in the same way that Pat Riley stripped the Heat's payroll to the bones in 2010 for that free-agency class. Only Steve Nash's $9.7 million is on the books for 2014-15 and the Lakers would be wise to explore the market for the 39-year-old's services, which would wipe their books completely clean for their free-agency hunt.
  36.  
  37. Who'd be interested? The Lakers would probably kick the tires on a swap with Shawn Marion's expiring $9 million contract, which would allow the Mavericks to reunite Dirk Nowitzki and Nash for one last hurrah as the Mavericks search for their next big star to build around.
  38.  
  39. Also, don't count out the Indiana Pacers, who have Danny Granger's expiring contract sitting on the books. A swap that would move Granger to purple and gold for Nash and Jordan Hill would give the Pacers a real point guard to lead the offense and a backup for David West now that they have cut ties with Tyler Hansbrough. But Indiana's reluctance to pay the tax may make the Pacers queasy about bringing on Nash and his contract that extends into 2015, which would cut into their space for Paul George's and Lance Stephenson's imminent extensions.
  40.  
  41. What about Gasol?
  42. If the Lakers are truly serious about "rigging" for Wiggins, they could also look to unload Gasol's contract. As the roster looks now, the Lakers will struggle to make the playoffs without Howard (of course, depending on if and when Bryant returns to the court). Gasol was terribly misplaced as a stretch 4 last season next to Howard, but at 33, he can still hold down the fort at the 5 with double-double efforts nearly every night.
  43.  
  44. But do the Lakers really want that? The worst-case scenario for the Lakers would be to narrowly miss the playoffs and end up in the 12-14 range in the 2014 draft. By keeping Gasol around they would risk being smack dab in the middle of the NBA's version of purgatory -- in the lottery but outside the top 10.
  45.  
  46. No matter how much the Lakers would like to move Gasol's contract, they'd have a tough time finding a taker at that price while making sure to keep their books sparkling clean for the 2014 sweepstakes. One possible landing spot is in Washington, where the Wizards could offer Emeka Okafor's and Kevin Seraphin's expiring contracts for Gasol's services in the paint.
  47.  
  48. A Gasol reunion with fellow Spanish countryman Ricky Rubio in Minnesota makes some sense, but the Timberwolves likely lack the requisite contracts to make it worthwhile for the Lakers. If the Lakers don't move Gasol this offseason, he could become trade bait at the deadline for a contender looking to beef up before the playoffs.
  49.  
  50. Ultimately, the goal for the Lakers will be to find their next big star and, as with the Boston Celtics, all eyes should be on 2014. Holding on to Gasol and Nash won't help that cause and neither will rushing Bryant back from surgery. The Lakers' immediate future is bleak and pushing for the playoffs would only hurt their long-term outlook. Better to tear it down now, clear off the books and aim for the stars in the summer of 2014.