LOS ANGELES -- Ever since Aug. 10, 2012 -- the day the Dwight Howard trade to the Los Angeles Lakers became official -- the team has been preparing for the day in July 2013 when they would get the chance to ensure that Howard would stay a Laker for years to come.
Howard is the top free agency priority for the Lakers this summer. It cannot be overstated how much the team is hitching its hopes to Howard sticking around to assume the role as the next face of the franchise.
But one All-Star center does not a team make.
The Lakers have seven players under contract for next season: Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace, Steve Blake, Jordan Hill and Jodie Meeks. Howard would make eight.
They have also extended a qualifying offer to Robert Sacre, making him a restricted free agent, and drafted Ryan Kelly in the second round. If they both make the team, that puts the roster at 10.
The Lakers could very well amnesty either World Peace or Gasol if Howard decides to come back, which could bring the roster number down to nine. Or they could look to trade one of them, which could swell the Lakers' number of players to 10 or more, depending on if it was a package deal.
Because of all the uncertainty, and because of the limited resources available to them to sign free agents, and being that they are a luxury tax-paying team which comes with repercussions under the current collective bargaining agreement, the Lakers cast a wide net when it came to pursuing their initial wave of free agents.
Yes, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak met with Howard for a brief face-to-face shortly after 9:01 p.m. PT Sunday evening, but his night didn't end there. The Lakers' GM got lost in a flurry of phone calls, making sure to express initial interest in a bevy of free agents that could potentially fit in with the team.
Going back to the roster math, we've outlined a Lakers team that is already comprised of 10 players. That means L.A. will be looking to add five more players at the maximum, but more likely three or four. The Lakers like to enter into a season with at least one open roster spot to make it possible to pick up an unsigned or waived player later into the year, or help facilitate an uneven trade (example: trade one player away, get two in return).
As hinted at before, keep in mind the Lakers don't have much to offer to these free agents because of their current salary cap situation. L.A. has the mini mid-level exception (worth approximately $3.2 million) and veteran minimum contracts available at their disposal. That's it.
Here's a breakdown of the players who we know are on the Lakers' radar, thanks to ESPNLosAngeles.com and media reports:
These players are all unrestricted free agents, but have the benefit (or potentially the drawback) of familiarity with the team.
Earl Clark: A throw-in as part of the Howard deal, Clark was a spark plug for the Lakers in January and February before fading down the stretch and bottoming out in the playoffs. L.A. could do worse than getting Clark back, but there could be better options out there, despite the fact Clark is just 25. Clark is set to meet with the Cavaliers and former Lakers coach Mike Brown on Tuesday, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Darius Morris: A second-round pick by the Lakers in 2010, Morris finally got his number called in the playoffs because of injuries and averaged 14 points and four assists in L.A.'s final three playoff games after Bryant, Nash, Blake and Meeks went out. The Lakers chose not to extend Morris a qualifying offer, but did invite him to play on their summer league team. If he comes back, it would be for a minimum contract.
Andrew Goudelock: There's no doubt that Goudelock can shoot it, but the same reason he was cut from the Lakers in the first place (lack of size and defensive deficiencies) is the same reason he probably won't be back with the team next season.
These guys are young and talented with enough of a question mark surrounding them to make it conceivable the Lakers get them, but enough upside to create a competitive market that will likely price the Lakers out.
Nick Young: The Lakers had interest in the L.A. native last summer as well, before Young inked a one-year deal with Philadelphia worth $6 million. Although sometimes erratic, Young has a prototypical 6-7, 210-pound frame as a shooting guard and is still just 28 years old. He would have to give the Lakers a major hometown discount to put on the purple and gold.
Chase Budinger: Part of the Lakers' pitch to Howard will be that they will surround him with shooters to open up his game down low. Budinger fits the bill, but Minnesota has interest in keeping him and Milwaukee, New Orleans, Utah, Indiana, Dallas and Memphis could all look to get him as well. The Lakers probably won't be able to compete in a bidding war, but Budinger grew up in San Diego, so maybe the SoCal appeal could help.
Chris Copeland: The 6-8, 225-pound Copeland possesses the potent skill combo of being able to defend on the wing while also hit down his outside shots (42.1 percent from 3 as a rookie). However, New York, Milwaukee and Indiana all have interest in him as well.
THE SENSIBLE FITS
These players should fall right into the Lakers' wheelhouse in terms of being affordable, while bringing a clear skill set to the table.
Wayne Ellington: The Cavs did not extend a qualifying offer to the 6-4 Ellington, who has shot 38.2 percent from 3 in his four-year career. He might be somewhat redundant with the Lakers already having Meeks, but as Miami proved in the playoffs, you can never have too many shooters.
Francisco Garcia: He's been on the Lakers' radar for a while -- Phil Jackson once urged the team to trade Sasha Vujacic for him while Garcia played for Sacramento -- and he could bring the right mix of what L.A. is looking for. Garcia is a gritty small forward with length who could shore up L.A.'s perimeter defense. He's also a career 36.1 percent shooter from deep, so he could help in that department too. At 32 years old and coming off a lackluster season, he should be attainable for L.A.
Carlos Delfino: Another Houston castoff as the Rockets shed salary in their pursuit of Howard, the rugged Delfino offers much of what Garcia does, but is two years younger. His playoffs were cut short by a fractured right foot that required surgery, so health could be a concern.
Byron Mullens: The classic case of a guy putting up good numbers on a bad team, Mullens blossomed in Charlotte into a legit stretch four after not seeing much playing time in Oklahoma City. He could be a redundancy considering the Lakers drafted Kelly, but at just 24 years old and standing 7 feet tall, there is a reason for the Lakers' interest.
THE FORMER LAKERS
These are the been there, done that guys who are looking for work. Like the incumbents, the Lakers' familiarity with them can be a double-edged sword.
Jordan Farmar: To get Farmar would require the Lakers to pay his buyout of approximately $500,000 to Anadolu Efes of the Turkish Basketball League. While that figure wouldn't count against L.A.'s cap, the Lakers already have two point guards in Nash and Blake and would probably only offer Farmar the veteran's minimum of $1 million if they did try to get him. Still, at just 26 years old and with athleticism, scoring ability and championship experience, Farmar could be a bargain and good insurance to have behind the Steves.
Matt Barnes: He never really found his rhythm in his two seasons with the Lakers, but Barnes is coming off a great year with the Clippers when he put up a career-high 10.3 points in just 25.7 minutes per game. As a confidant of Bryant and former teammate of Howard, he could fit right back into the locker room as well.
Sasha Vujacic: Vujacic is in L.A. training for the summer and has been in contact with Lakers reps. He can still shoot and he's still long and can be pesky on defense.
THE PLAN B'S
This group lets you know just how wide of a net the Lakers have cast. Because of the relatively meager contracts they can offer compared to other teams with cap space around the league, the Lakers must have contingency plans.
Brandan Wright: He came into the league with big expectations out of UNC and has been labeled a disappointment because of it. Yet, Wright's numbers last season (8.5 points on 59.7 percent shooting and 4.1 rebounds in just 18 minutes per game) were solid. Perhaps the back-up big could be a reclamation project for Kupchak, a fellow Tar Heel.
Shawne Williams: He was out of the league in 2012-13, but before that enjoyed the best stretch of his career playing for Mike D'Antoni in New York when he averaged 7.1 points on 40.1 percent from 3 in 2010-11.
Will Bynum: A classic change-of-pace guard off the bench, the compact 6-foot, 185-pound Bynum had a rocky relationship with management in Detroit but proved he could score in bunches.