11:40 am Jul. 26, 2012
Say this for Dwight Howard: He isn't shy about telling the Orlando Magic what he wants, even if what he wants keeps on changing.
Howard reportedly met with Orlando general manager Rob Hennigan Wednesday night in Los Angeles, and outlined three scenarios he'd prefer: a trade right now to the Lakers, a trade after January 15 to the Nets, or simply leaving via free agency at the end of next season.
The alternatives are due to the particular options available to the Lakers and Nets. The Lakers could make a deal for Howard now, likely centered around Andrew Bynum. But the Nets, having just re-signed Brook Lopez, cannot trade him until after January 15. Without Lopez or Kris Humphries in the deal, the Nets almost certainly cannot get Howard's salary under the cap.
Of course, this all presupposes that the Orlando Magic care even a little bit about what Dwight Howard wants at this point. Given the year-plus that Howard has stunted the team's ability to do, essentially, any long-term building with his changes of heart and public declarations, looking out for Howard isn't likely to be in the cards.
But the statement of intent—complete with Howard making the case that he would sign with the Dallas Mavericks if he becomes a free agent next summer—could give any other team pause.
That Howard has a viable destination via free agency is key. As currently constructed, neither the Lakers nor the Nets could sign Howard as a free agent, due to salary cap restrictions. So if Howard is only interested in going to one of those two teams, it would have to happen through a trade. If the Magic aren't interested in helping him land somewhere, or they believe the value of a Howard expiring contract is greater than what they'd receive in a trade with either team, they could hold onto Howard. They'd suffer the nightmare of a year with Howard, a star player likely to be vilified by his own fans after making it so clear that he's leaving, but they'd be doing it for the long-term good of the franchise.
The trade alternatives aren't pretty, either. The Lakers could offer Bynum, but he's given every indication that he won't sign in Orlando long-term, so they'd be trading one center leaving for another. And the Lakers gave up several first round picks to bring in Steve Nash. Since the N.B.A. has a rule prohibiting teams from trading first round picks in consecutive years, that greatly limits what the Lakers can package, pick-wise, with Bynum.
The Nets can offer a couple of picks—some of their largesse went into trading for Deron Williams—and Lopez, who is signed to a max deal for the next four years. By waiting, Orlando can see how Lopez has recovered from a broken foor that limited him to five games last season. If Lopez impresses, Orlando could be convinced that adding him and a couple of picks is better than getting cap space. But the burden is on Lopez to show he's worth building around.
Otherwise, we could be in for another year of this nonsense. Or the Magic could be tempted by another N.B.A. team willing to bet that if Howard is traded to them, he'll re-sign to maximize his payday. The Houston Rockets are a likely bidder in that scenario.
But the Nets, who are already equipped to compete in Brooklyn, might yet end up with the N.B.A.'s best center, who seems determined to make himself unwelcome just about everywhere else.