This whole Dwight Howard trade rumor bonanza hasn't been nearly as dissected as the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes of 2010-11. Blame the condensed game schedule, the lack of involvement of the core New York media and the lack of involvement of a reality show, but the actual mechanics behind the Howard saga are actually comparatively understood.
With Melo, we knew just about everything, it seemed. Howard's situation isn't quite an open book.
So let us answer any questions you, The World At Large, may have about this whole Dwight Howard thing.
Does Dwight really want to be traded?
Conditionally, yes. Howard is pretty renowned for not knowing what he wants, but this much is clear:
1. He isn't terribly excited about re-signing with the Orlando Magic for various reasons.
2. He likes money, and would prefer more money to less money, because he is human and is not an acolyte of Notorious B.I.G.'s grandest philosophy.
3. He understands that re-signing with Bird rights is the clearest path to getting the maximum annual salary and commitment possible.
4. He has a list, which may or may not constantly change in content, of teams he would be happy to sign with long-term.
Howard has those three to five teams he has indicated he'll sign a long-term deal with -- the Nets, Lakers, Mavericks and possibly the Sacramento Kings and Besiktas. If he's traded to any other team, he'd be in the same position he's in now: he'd have to sign a non-Bird deal -- a smaller, shorter deal -- as a free agent with one of his preferred clubs.
Those are the conditions of Howard's trade request: sending him to a team not on his list doesn't help him any, so don't bother.
Why should Orlando play along? Who cares what he wants? He's under CONTRACT. Doesn't that mean anything in America anymore?
Orlando doesn't have to play along. But if Howard leaves as a free agent in July, as is his wholly American right (despite what LeBron's Decision hecklers might argue), the Magic could end up with absolutely nothing. Unlike baseball, the NBA doesn't do compensatory picks. Orlando could do a sign-and-trade deal if Howard walks. Cleveland and Toronto did sign-and-trade deals when LeBron and Chris Bosh walked. You know what the Cavaliers and Raptors got out of those deals? Me neither. That's how lucrative the sign-and-trade business has become.
Playing ball with Dwight at this point is a method of self-preservation for Orlando. There's no obligation, moral or otherwise, to cede to Howard's request. There's simply an obligation to the future of the franchise to draw an asset or assets from this ordeal.
Why won't Howard just come out and say what he wants? Isn't he a man?
It's pretty clear what Howard wants without an explicit statement. The Magic wouldn't be entertaining trade talks if it were real likely that Dwight would re-sign in Orlando. Further, there are two major disincentives to being forthright:
1. Stars who deign to embrace their right to free agency and the implicit or explicit power granted therein are made to be villains. See: LeBron, Bosh and Melo.
2. There are NBA rules against publicly requesting a trade. Financial penalties are handed out in response.
If Dwight cares about winning, why are the Nets on his list?
"Winning" is a relative concept. The outer limits of Orlando's success, at least in this Bulls-Heat duopoly in the East, can be seen as where the Magic are this year: good, perhaps really good, but a serious longshot to compete for a championship. The Nets are bad, but Deron Williams is far, far better than any teammate Howard has ever had in Orlando ... and the Magic made the 2009 NBA Finals! Though they are struggling, remember that Chris Paul and Blake Griffin made an instant contender out of the Clippers. Howard is much better than Griffin, and while CP3 is better than Williams, that's a closer race.
If the Nets land Howard via trade and don't take on additional Orlando salary (like Hedo Turkoglu), they'd also be in position to add a good player via free agency to slot in with Deron and Dwight.
So, yes, the Nets stink right now. But because of Williams, their potential seems greater than that of the Magic.
Where's the loyalty? Orlando has paid Dwight a lot of money over the years ... they built him a new arena!
And Howard has outperformed those contracts. Free agency is just that: players are free to choose where to live and work. It's pretty straightforward, a fairly simple American tenet. The NBA collectively bargains its player movement rules. The team owners approve those agreements.
The idea that star players owe their draft teams something beyond hard work and performance is bizarre. It's not like the Magic and the city of Orlando saved Dwight from a life of destitution and sadness. Any other team in the league would have paid him the same amount, made the same effort to surround him with talent. If Orlando wanted to tax itself to build a new basketball arena, it would have done so even without Dwight.
It's unfortunate that in the NBA, losing a star leads to a quick, devastating drop in the standings and a tough rebuild. But that has nothing to do with Dwight or anything he owes to Orlando. It's just the league's reality. (One that the league office endorses, as evidenced by the scorched Earth project that is the league-owned New Orleans Hornets.)
What's going to happen?
This is where the Dwight saga becomes completely unknowable, and it is for this reason: Otis Smith is completely fricking crazy. Nothing he does would surprise anyone who follows the league closely. He gave Rashard Lewis a $112 million contract. He traded for Gilbert Arenas after the knee problems, after the near-max contract and after the Pick 1 Incident. He let Hedo Turkoglu leave in free agency due to cost concerns, watched Hedo sign an incredibly large deal, watched Hedo vastly underperform that contract with two different teams over the span of a season and a half ... and then traded for Hedo. He gave up Brandon Bass for the opportunity to sign Glen Davis to a multi-year deal.
But it's not all bad. I will never forget what Otis did to Donnie Nelson, one of the game's best GMs, in 2009. Howard's solid backup, Polish center Marcin Gortat, was a restricted free agent. He had suitors, among them the Dallas Mavericks. Gortat eventually signed the Mavericks' offer sheet for five years, $33 million. Orlando had seven days to match. Otis demurred and indicated publicly that it was too much ... but didn't decline to match right away. Instead, he set his eyes on Brandon Bass, an unrestricted free agent of the Mavs. The Magic quickly signed Bass to an affordable multi-year deal; Dallas would have wanted to keep Bass if it wasn't clear they were getting Gortat.
But at the last minute, Smith matched the Gortat offer, leaving the Mavericks with nada. The Magic ended up with two fairly priced, solid big men -- rarities in the modern NBA.
Of course, Otis would waste those shrewd moves completely: he dealt Bass this offseason in a shockingly bad deal for Big Baby, and used Gortat to "land" Hedo and Jason Richardson. Such is the siren song of Otis Smith and the Orlando Magic. Such is the Dwight Howard saga, where we really won't know what's going to happen until it happens.