The Los Angeles Lakers were swept out of the NBA Playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks in brutal fashion; the finish in Game 4 was less a splash of cold water than a firehose blast straight out of the Arctic. Rumors of a rebuild with Pau Gasol on the next bus out of L.A. spread like the plague before the final buzzer even sounded.
Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic were jacked out of the NBA Playoffs by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, with Howard's supporting cast more resembling a junior high production of Little House of Horrors instead of the Broadway-level crew a star of Dwight's caliber deserves. With Howard approaching unrestricted free agency in 2012, rumors of his wandering eye sparked immediately.
Naturally, the narratives collided quickly, and now we have Dwight Howard to the Lakers to concern ourselves with.
A year ago, we may have been able to keep ourselves above the fray and ignored the concept until it became real. But the coalescing of talent on the Miami Heat and the New York Knick's long, successful courtship of Carmelo Anthony changed everything. The lesson of the Heat is that players no longer fear looking like wimps by teaming up with fellow stars in their primes; the self-centered, hombre era is dead.
Ultimate success is ultimate success whether it's accomplished with high-powered teammates or whether it's accomplished solo -- except it's never accomplished solo. Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen, Larry Bird had Kevin McHale, Magic Johnson had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, Kobe Bryant had Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol. Those stars had lucky draws or excellent front office decision-makers; because they didn't need to leave their first teams to find success, they earn the overwhelming credit for success. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade took over that front office role and made their own decisions, shaped their own roster. (Pat Riley obviously helped.)
That's the new reality Dwight Howard faces: you can wait for your non-glamour franchise to pull three cherries, or you can make your own fate. You can wait for the gold to arrive, or you can go find it.
The lesson of 'Melo is that the lesson of the Cleveland Cavaliers has created a new paradigm for free agency, one wrought with fear. No one wants to be LeBron'd or, more mildly, Bosh'd. That fear gives incredible power to players approaching free agency -- even those a year away. By refusing to pre-emptively agree to sign an extension with the New Jersey Nets, 'Melo basically forced a trade to the Knicks. The Denver Nuggets could have refused to comply, but in that case they'd be planning for life after 'Melo right now, without Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton or the rights to Wilson Chandler in their holster. In the 'Melo paradigm, de-facto free agency precedes free agency. Stars approaching free agency can now call their shots.
That's Dwight Howard's new power. With just a year to go before unrestricted free agency, he has quite a bit of say in where he lands in a potential trade, provided he, like 'Melo, refuses to sign an extension.
So in our new NBA, there is precedent for a player prefering a ready-made champion instead of a ground-up contender, and a precedent for a player to hold out for his preferred destination, no matter how many twists of salary cap rules are needed. If Dwight Howard wants to join the Lakers, in this NBA, he can do it.
That's why while we would love nothing more than to ignore this whole story, it's impossible. LeBron, 'Melo and the franchises of privilege they have enabled make Howard-to-the-Lakers a real possibility.
That a franchise can snap its fingers, show its rings and tempt a superstar like Howard speaks to the real problems of NBA economics, the third leg of this unholy new rumor cycle.
The dirty little secret of the NBA's glamour franchises is that while they do want a salary cap in order to crush player salaries, that while they do want to eliminate the mid-level exception and shrink their costs, they are perfectly happy now and will be perfectly happy in the future doing everything they can to get the stars they desire. Last summer, the Lakers used their mid-level exception on Steve Blake and Matt Barnes despite already being $25 million over the salary cap and $15 million over the luxury tax threshold. In all (including luxury tax payments), Jerry Buss will have spent $110 million on players for a team swept out of the second round. That's unacceptable.
And that's why Buss will convince himself to boost salary even more by chasing Howard and considering taking on an awful contract like Gilbert Arenas or Hedo Turkoglu in the process. That's why even if there is a harder salary cap, Buss and the Lakers will find ways to draw expensive talent and use their market-driven revenue superiority to blitzkrieg (most of) the competition. The Lakers want to shrink costs, and may be willing to suffer a lockout to get there. But they still want their leg up on the competition; they still want to animate Lakers' privilege to victorious effect.
The Lakers want to spend less, but still want to be able to spend more than everyone else. They want to be able to pull players like Dwight Howard when things go south. They want to use the lesson of the Heat and the lesson of 'Melo to enormous gain.
And so, we cannot ignore this Howard-to-the-Lakers business, and we cannot assume there will ever be an offseason in the NBA's new rumor mill. Everyone is always at play, and the marquee franchises always have the advantage, and there is no helping it. All we can do is watch Russell Westbrook look like a mutant waterbug and Marc Gasol look like a titan on Earth and enjoy what's left of the league before it's gone, lost in the carnage of a Dwight-Kobe future.
The NBA: where trade-rumors-as-dystopian-fables happen.