Dwight Howard And The Crumbling Facade Of Competitive Balance

Apr 07, 2012; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard (12) and Philadelphia 76ers forward Elton Brand (42) fight for position during the third quarter at the Wells Fargo Center. The Magic defeated the Sixers 88-82. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE

So much for the idea that the lockout deal would prevent players from wielding free agency like a weapon against smaller market teams.

The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.

It appears that Dwight Howard will land with the Brooklyn Nets after all, giving New York's new squad a(nother) intense jolt of energy as its new era begins. The deal reportedly nearing completion isn't much different than what's been reported in the past, though apparently Brooklyn is trying to send the Orlando Magic another pick or asset instead of Kris Humphries. While the details come into focus, one thing is clear as the Montana sky in June.

NBA stars still have all of the power.

There is no chance that Brook Lopez and draft picks would be the best deal available on an open market. Howard is a franchise-changing center. (Want evidence? Look how he changed the dilapidated post-McGrady Magic franchise from a bottom-feeder into a Finals team.) If Chris Paul could pull a top prospect (Eric Gordon), a solid prospect (Al-Farouq Aminu) and a high unprotected pick (Minnesota's 2012 first), Howard should pull the same if not more. (Lopez is far, far below Gordon in terms of value. Witness: Gordon has a max offer in his pocket. Lopez, also a restricted free agent, has ... nothing. He'll probably get about $10 million a year in this deal. Gordon's getting $14 million.)


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The reason that the Howard deal will apparently be Lopez and picks is because Orlando is not dealing with the open market. The Magic are dealing with Dwight's limited market because he refuses to sign an extension with any team but Brooklyn. That hasn't stopped Orlando from talking with other clubs, but it damn sure has stopped those clubs from presenting their best offers. The L.A. Lakers might want to trade Andrew Bynum for Howard, and Orlando may be willing to consider that. But if Howard promises to leave for Brooklyn as a free agent in 2013, why would the Lakers give up a top asset for a rental? The same applies to other teams with deep asset pools. There's no sense selling the family Buick so you can lease a Mercedes for a week.

And the whole thing has worked for Howard: He's probably going to the Brooklyn Nets. Just like Carmelo Anthony went to the New York Knicks after waving his free agency around like a sword. And Chris Paul went to Los Angeles, one of his chosen cities. Players' preferences matter, because free agency matters. This has always been the case, and will always be the case because in the NBA having star players and having success are so closely linked.

In fact, the NBA's attempts to give an advantage back to less glamorous teams may have backfired. In the lockout deal, the league boosted incumbent teams' ability to pay their own free agents more over longer terms and put major restrictions on sign-and-trades. No longer could players follow the LeBron James model in free agency. Under that regime, players could receive all of the benefits of staying with their home team (longer contracts, higher annual raises) while leaving. All it took was to convince that team losing the star to execute a sign-and-trade and pick up an asset in the process. Incumbent teams could refuse and make the players take smaller deals, but that rarely happened. Even Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert signed off on a LeBron sign-and-trade to the Miami Heat days after his infamous dive into Comic Sans.

The lockout deal prevents players from landing five-year deals or max 7.5 percent annual raises in sign-and-trades. In these deals, players will only get what they would as free agents: four-year deals with 4.5 percent annual raises. There are also restrictions in the pipeline on which teams can take on sign-and-trades -- clubs over the tax line won't be able to make those deals beginning in a year.

So, the natural solution for Chris Paul and Dwight Howard? Avoid the sign-and-trade entirely by making that trade request early. Instead of having LeBrons and Boshes, we have CP3s and Dwights, and the result is entirely the same: Players get max contracts with the teams they want, incumbent teams are forced to deal with a market limited by the star's preferences.

The NBA limited superstars' power in free agency. The superstars and their agents adapted and wield their power in a different way. The result is the same: Stars leave markets like New Orleans and Orlando for places like Los Angeles and New York. Well, I'm sure glad we fixed competitive balance last year.

The lockout was solely about money, and specifically the owners' desire for more of it. Everything else was a planted distraction designed to make the league's case smell better. We're watching the facade crumble to the ground in Orlando right now.

The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.

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