Said @lakers_army: "Whether you like it or not, Dwight is the best center in the NBA. Lakers need him!"

The Lakers made a minor personnel move this week they probably would have done anyway, picking up the one-year option for reserve guard Jodie Meeks, who happened to be Howard's best friend on the team. Meeks, 25, will be under contract through next season for $1.6 million.

Free agency begins Sunday at 9:01 p.m., and players cannot officially sign until July 10, though the Lakers hope Howard returns right around then.

It's important because they have a small window from July 10-16 to use their one-time "amnesty" provision and waive a player without paying luxury taxes on his salary. One of four eligible Lakers can be cut: Bryant ($30.5 million next season), Pau Gasol ($19.3 million), Metta World Peace ($7.7 million) or Steve Blake ($4 million).

Bryant won't be waived because it would be a terrible public-relations move for the team. Blake is safe because his salary is too small to make a financial difference.

That leaves Gasol and World Peace. Howard likes playing with Gasol and could withhold his decision until after the amnesty window, forcing the Lakers to waive World Peace.

But if Howard agrees to return before July 16, Gasol could be waived to potentially save $60 million in luxury taxes.

It's a strange situation that gets stranger. If Howard bolts, Gasol stays and the Lakers look a lot more watered-down next season.

"If Dwight should leave, then we have a Plan B. It's not as good as Plan A," Kupchak acknowledged.

The Lakers are way too far over the salary cap to sign a high-impact player even if Howard chooses another team. The most they can offer a free agent is a three-year, $10-million contract, as per rules of the collective-bargaining agreement.

Howard's departure could mean a Lakers opening-night lineup of Gasol, Steve Nash, Jordan Hill, Blake and a small forward to be figured out by the end of October. Bryant would start the season in place of Blake if he recovered in time from a torn Achilles' tendon, a shaky prospect at best.

The Lakers will consider re-signing free-agent small forward Earl Clark if he comes cheaply. Clark made $1.2 million last season.

The good news for the team if Howard leaves is the shopping spree they'll experience next year. The only player under contract with the Lakers after next season is Nash for $9.7 million in 2014-15. That leaves enough money to sign two maximum-level free agents and a third for pretty good money.

"I think it puts them in position to be a great franchise for five years if they make the right decision and the right moves," Magic Johnson said earlier this month.

Regardless, the Lakers want Howard back.

Whether he wants them in return will be known soon enough.

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

twitter.com/Mike_Bresnahan