If you needed a reminder as to why the NBA's been orbiting around Dwight Howard for the past six months, Thursday night was as good as any. Dwight had 29 points, 18 rebounds and three blocks on the road in Chicago, and despite a Bulls comeback that evened things up down the stretch, the Magic pulled away and got the win.
The Bulls were playing their fourth game in five days, but even so. Howard looked bigger and badder than ever, Ryan Anderson played off him perfectly, and it was all enough to remind that you Dwight's still one of the four or five best basketball players on the planet. When a roster clicks around him, the results can be pretty devastating, and lots of fun to watch.
The hype over Dwight's situation can seem overblown, and even Derrick Rose is "sick and tired" of all the rumors. But Thursday was our reminder. This isn't Carmelo or Deron Williams, or even Chris Paul. Those guys are superstars, but Dwight Howard's been competing with Hall-of-Famers for his entire career. That's a whole other level. If the Melo-Deron-CP3 cabal changed the way the NBA landscape looks, Dwight's the first one since LeBron who could cause an earthquake.
Say he ends up in Chicago. Especially as Dwyane Wade ages in the next few years, don't Dwight, D-Rose, and the Bulls become the most the dominating duo in the Eastern Conference?
Or the Nets. Suddenly, Brooklyn leapfrogs the Knicks, the New York rivalry hits fifth gear in year one and Deron/Dwight spend the next five years challenging Miami and Chicago.
Or ... what if a team like Oklahoma City jumps in? They'd be trading James Harden or Russell Westbrook along with Serge Ibaka, and the fun-loving summer camp Sam Presit has built in OKC never looks the same again (but maybe looks better than ever?)
And of course, we've already explained why the Clippers should trade Blake Griffin.
You could go right down the list. Every team in either conference is insane not to make a bid for Dwight. All of which makes this holding pattern so underwhelming. When I was in Orlando a few weeks ago, all the Magic beat writers, bloggers, and radio hosts said the same thing. "He's not going anywhere this year. It makes no sense for the Magic to trade him this season." That's how the logic goes, anyway.
All the suitors the Magic have right now will be there this summer, when the Magic can still do a sign-and-trade should Dwight Howard make it clear that he's leaving anyway. But this all gets more fascinating when you go back to the first sentence up top. The NBA's orbiting around Dwight right now, and everybody's watching to see how this plays out.
If there's been any theme to the superstar movement over the past few years, it's that each move has come with its own set of unintended consequences for the rest of the NBA. LeBron's move to Miami helped inspire Anthony to force his way to New York. Those moves prompted the Jazz to move Deron Williams sooner than anyone expected, while his value was still at its peak. All of this helped create the NBA Lockout.
Then, when Chris Paul tried to follow the same playbook after the NBA Lockout, his situation accidentally exposed a giant loophole in the NBA's newly minted CBA. We explained this here:
The new NBA rules force superstars into demanding trades and engineering these months-long soap operas. Here's how, in general terms:
... if franchise players do want to leave their teams, then this model gives leaves them with an obvious choice. Sacrifice $26 million and an extra year at max salary in exchange for the freedom to play where they want, OR tell their current team that they're definitely leaving, and force that team to choose between trading them now, or risk losing them for nothing.
- To keep "SUPERSTAR X" from leaving "HOME TEAM" in free agency, the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement allows HOME TEAM to offer SUPERSTAR X more money, and a longer contract.
- For instance, if SUPERSTAR X signs with EVIL TEAM, the most he could get would be $74 million over four years. If he stays with HOME TEAM, he could get $100 million over five years and HOME TEAM can exceed the salary cap to keep him.
Even if a player would prefer to honor a contract he signed for the full duration before he leaves in free agency, it's financially insane not to demand a sign-and-trade. Given the CBA constraints, a sign-and-trade is the only way a superstar can leave and still make max money.
So, to review:
- LeBron's Blueprint to relocation created the Carmelo Blueprint to relocation.
- The Carmelo blueprint created the Jazz Blueprint, where teams anticipate a trade demand before it happens.
- The CP3 Blueprint created a model for the new CBA, where players demand trades early, hoping to sign-and-trade for the max.
And now we have Dwight Howard, the best player to available since LeBron, and the Orlando Magic, who will be wearing the Cleveland hat for the next five months. Where does this take things?
The consequences seem obvious on the surface. Orlando's proven that you don't have to give away a superstar for 70-cents-on-the-dollar every time he makes a trade demand. By keeping the Magic in contention, Howard's kept his reputation as a fan favorite mostly in tact. Orlando and Howard are proving that these situations don't have to end ugly for everybody.
HOWEVER ... Even if Howard stays in Orlando all year, we're headed for a tipping point.
If he's serious about leaving this summer, there's always the chance that the Magic will force him to take $30 million less to do it. It's a game of chicken, and if Howard doesn't blink on the way to Brooklyn or Dallas or L.A., then Orlando gets nothing. Then the Magic become a cautionary tale for teams facing similar situations down the line.
If Howard takes the money and stays, he's coming back to a team with the same problems they've had for the past three years, and no immediate solutions in sight. Howard loses there -- if not this summer, then a few years when he hasn't won a title and regrets his decision -- and every other superstar demanding a trade realizes they've got to be blatant about their unhappiness to grease the wheels of a sign-and-trade before it's too late.
The most likely scenario: Orlando realizes Dwight's really leaving this summer, panics, and at the 11th hour Otis Smith is fielding sign-and-trade offers that are worse than ever.
Analysts like to say, "Athletes will never leave money on the table," hence the game of chicken. But franchises are just as greedy. Magic owner Rich DeVoss isn't going to let a $100 million asset walk away for nothing, just for the sake of proving a point. The problem then: If everybody knows Dwight Howard's opting for free agency and the Magic get desperate for returns, will trade offers really get better? Howard will have more leverage (because he can refuse to play even a day with any prospective trade partners), and the Magic will have less than ever.
So here's where we are: The Magic have been able to squeeze another solid season (and playoff money) out of Dwight and the current roster, and Dwight's been able to avoid the PR nightmare that came with the Carmelo saga or even what happened to CP3 in New Orleans.
They've both been polite, and it's paid off for now. Orlando hopes games like Thursday night make you forget about the subtext to this season. Instead, though, it's just makes you think about the future. And that's when you realize there's a trade off that comes with all this courtesy.
At best, this season's just a waste of time for Howard, another second-round exit smack in the middle of his prime. Games like Chicago will all be for nothing. At worst, staying politically correct this season leads to staying for good and more wasted years in Orlando.
For the Magic, calling Howard's bluff may get them to the the playoffs this year, but if he leaves, this waiting game kills their leverage this summer, and hinders their rebuilding effort.
Orlando's blueprint will be a cautionary tale for someone -- maybe Howard stays to get paid, and superstars looking to leave realize that they've got force teams' hands. Or maybe he leaves, and teams looking to keep superstars realize that waiting only makes it worse. If it's consequences we're wondering about, here's to betting that this strange year in Orlando becomes proof that if a superstar wants out, ignoring the issue exist isn't the answer. Postponing ugliness only prolongs it.
For the team forfeiting its foundation or the player risking his reputation, it takes a serious sacrifice to get what you need in the long term. But that's why they call it a trade, ya know?