By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Still reeling after Dwight Howard's decision to leave Los Angeles for Houston last week, the Lakers were hastily installing backup plans on the eve of the National Basketball Association's free-agent signing period.
Long handicapped in their bid to recruit new players because of a hefty payroll, the 16-times NBA champions have lined up former Clippers center Chris Kaman on a one-year deal to help fill the gap left by Howard's departure.
Given the addition of Kaman will soak up virtually all of the Lakers' "mini" mid-level salary exception, speculation has heightened that former defensive player of the year Metta World Peace will likely released by the franchise.
"Personally I'd keep Metta and make a run with the unit we have and just add a few pieces #keepthepeace #lakersstilldeciding," tweeted Lakers All-Star Kobe Bryant, a five-time NBA champion.
"No game 7 win without Metta! This is a tough day for laker nation."
Bryant was referring to the Lakers' victory over the Boston Celtics in the concluding Game Seven of the 2010 NBA Finals when World Peace, then named Ron Artest, contributed 20 points in a superb all-round performance.
While World Peace was initially a significant factor after joining the Lakers in July 2009 on a lucrative five-year contract, his defensive abilities have waned and he blew hot and cold last season before his team lost in the first round of the playoffs.
Though he flourished at first under new coach Mike D'Antoni's system, he failed to shine in the latter part of the season after returning from knee surgery, averaging only six points on 25 percent shooting in three playoff games.
LUXURY TAX SAVING
Should World Peace be cut during the one-week window to amnesty players, starting on Wednesday, the Lakers would save around $11 million in luxury taxes.
However, they would also be left without any small forwards, though the versatile Bryant has occasionally played that position.
With seven-time All-Star center Howard opting to join the Rockets despite a substantial paycut, the Lakers will field a likely starting lineup next season hinging around Kaman, Bryant, Pau Gasol, veteran point guard Steve Nash and Steve Blake.
The inspirational Bryant, who averaged 27.3 points and six assists per game last season, is expected to make a belated return to the lineup as he continues to recover from surgery on a torn Achilles' tendon.
Bottom line, the Lakers will have to make the best of a bad situation next season before they can enjoy a financial windfall heading into their 2014-15 campaign, when they will have an estimated $50 million to spend due to increased salary-cap room.
At present, the Lakers have nine players under contract for a total of $81.6 million, including Metta World Peace, but only the 39-year-old Nash will be under contract after next season.
By that time, players such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Zach Randolph could all be free agents.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Gene Cherry)