4:33 pm Mar. 16, 2012
Ever since the New Jersey Nets traded a boatload of young talent and draft picks for Deron Williams last year, they have been racing against Williams' contract, which expires this July, and their move to Brooklyn, where they will begin playing this November.
The plan was a simple one: Do whatever it takes to bring Dwight Howard, also scheduled to be a free agent this summer, into the fold to pair with Williams. Howard, the eight-year veteran of the Orlando Magic, is the best center in the N.B.A., and his addition would immediately make the Nets into contenders.
Howard, for his part, made it clear to Orlando that he wanted to be traded, and provided a list of three teams he'd accept and sign a long-term contract with: the Nets, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks. Better luck still for the Nets: The Lakers and Mavericks lacked the ability to match up in trade with Orlando. So it appeared the Magic would either need to make a deal with the Nets by Thursday afternoon's trade deadline, or lose Howard for nothing.
Either scenario suited New Jersey just fine; they'd get Howard in time to convince Williams to stay either way, and they'd have a pair of stars to market to their new Brooklyn audience.
But then came those final couple of days, as crazy as any in N.B.A. trade-deadline history. First Howard announced on Tuesday night that while he planned to be a free agent at the end of the year, he wanted Orlando to keep him so he could make one more push at winning a championship with the Magic. That was unpalatable to Orlando, with Miami and Chicago serving as large roadblocks this season, while holding onto Howard would leave them with nothing if he signed elsewhere. The move was also seen as a ploy by Howard to let New Jersey keep all of its talent before he joined them.
Then on Wednesday, following morning practice, Howard appeared to have a change of heart. He told his teammates that he planned to stay an extra year in Orlando, through the 2012-13 season, by signing a player option for $19.5 million. The reaction throughout the league was incredulous, and even though the Nets began pursuing other avenues, they continued to negotiate with Orlando, in case Howard changed his mind.
Which he did, a few hours later. He spoke to his agent, Dan Fegan, who got Howard on a conference call with top Orlando brass, and explained that while Howard wasn't ruling out signing with the Magic, he would not be signing away another year. Trade talk resumed in earnest, and Howard looked like he was heading to New Jersey.
And then Howard changed his mind again, fired his agent, and at a happy press conference Thursday afternoon, announced he was staying in Orlando for one more year. It's official: when the Nets open in Brooklyn in November, they won't be doing so with the league's best center.
So what did the Nets do instead? They traded Mehmet Okur, Shawne Williams, and their number one draft pick in the upcoming draft to Portland for small forward Gerald Wallace.
The move has its good points, to be sure. Wallace becomes an immediate answer at small forward, an area of huge concern all season, and the physical 6'7" wing player will help the Nets defensively while becoming a solid fit with Williams.
Wallace has a player option for next season he is likely to exercise, and if the Nets can convince Williams to stick around, they would bring a solid starting five to Brooklyn with a frontcourt of Wallace, Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez, Williams and sharpshooter Anthony Morrow in the backcourt.
But let's be realistic: that isn't a team that is likely to put a scare into Chicago or Miami. Will Williams want to stick around for such a questionable endeavor?
It is possible, especially with Howard signing with Orlando for just one additional season. Consider that there's a very good chance Orlando finds itself in the identical position next year, if the Magic cannot give Howard the teammates he'll want if he is to stay in Orlando. The Nets could, a year from now, end up with Howard after all.
But a year is a long time. Just a year ago, Carmelo Anthony was supposedly the answer to all of the Knicks' problems, too. Who knows which teams will have the cap room and players to make a run at Howard? Or whether Williams will give the Nets the chance to do so?
The Nets were never going to be in a better position to add Howard, especially with the crucial first year of their move to Brooklyn just ahead of them. A team that thought the long wait for relevance was over is now going to wait some more, all because they took aim at Howard and missed.