LeBron James
Miami forward LeBron James can opt-out of his current contract with the Heat in the summer of 2014 and become an unrestricted free agent. The Lakers will be paying close attention to James all of next season. Reuters

The Los Angeles Lakers and their fans have barely had a day to process the loss of center Dwight Howard, but in the NBA teams have to move forward quickly whether they keep their top players or not.

Howard announced on Friday that he chose the Houston Rockets rather than extending his stay in Los Angeles for another five years. There is little precedent for a player to leave Los Angeles, considering most of the time they are trying to reach the West or East coasts as permanent destinations.

But Howard’s case was different as he felt the Rockets afforded him the best chance to develop his game and win an NBA title. It remains to be seen whether he is right, but the Lakers must still press on.

The loss of Howard will certainly put L.A. in the hunt for some more front-court help over the next month as free agency carries on, but what about their prospects beyond next season?

After the 2013-14 season, both Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol’s contracts come off the books. That is a total of $49 million of salary shed, and that’s not even counting the expiring contracts of Metta World Peace, Steve Blake, and Jordan Hill.

All told the Lakers Steve Nash is the only player on the roster beyond next season, and that’s for $9.7 million, which will expire in 2015. Meaning L.A. could have enough cap space to sign upwards of three maximum-level contracts.

The biggest possible name of the 2014 free agent class will be Miami Heat forward and four-time MVP LeBron James. The 28-year-old can opt-out of his deal with Miami and become an unrestricted free agent. He can sign with any team that has enough salary cap space for a max-deal, re-sign with the Heat for a raise, or give them another discount like he, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh did in 2010.

James set the very precedent himself when he left Cleveland in 2010. He saw that the Cavaliers, as they were constructed at the time, didn’t have the ability to compete for a title. James realized the better opportunity for championships came with his friends Wade and Bosh in Miami.

After three years together, the Heat’s Big Three have gone to two NBA Finals, and won it all in back-to-back years. However they did struggle in their most recent run, especially Wade and Bosh.

James appeared to have jumped to another level throughout the playoffs, but chronic knee injuries may have put Wade’s best years behind him, and Bosh has been limited offensively in big games and weak on the boards the last two seasons.

It’s possible James could see the writing on the wall once again. The Lakers, with their winning pedigree and seemingly endless salary cap space, could be the best place for him to end his career.

One of the biggest story lines throughout next season will be whether James stays with Miami and everyone, especially the Lakers, will keep a close eye on what he says both publicly and privately.

He will need help, but it’s possible Kobe Bryant could play for another few years, albeit in a limited role. Even if he does come back next season, rarely has a player been the same after an Achilles tendon tear.

Another superstar that could bee available along with James is current New York Knick and reigning scoring champion Carmelo Anthony. The two squared off against each other in their high school days, and both were in contention to be the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft.

Los Angeles would certainly welcome the teaming of James, perhaps the most complete player of his generation, and Anthony, the best multi-threat offensive virtuoso since Bryant in his prime.

The only thing certain is the Lakers will find a way. They’ve transitioned from the Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain years, to the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson years, and then Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. L.A. has proven its resilience, and won’t let Howard’s departure get in their way for long.