On an August day during the NBA lockout, Insider contributor and Heat Indexier Tom Haberstroh wrote this:
You are Pat Riley.
It's December 2011. The lockout has come and gone. The salary cap has been sliced, leaving the Miami Heat organization with even less wiggle room than it had before the owners and players decided to go to war. Spending power is nearly nonexistent.
It's free-agent season. The Heat need a center to anchor the paint for the future, but there just isn't anyone qualified for the job willing to take the necessary pay cut. Tyson Chandler? The biggest fish on the market won't be paid like a guppy. Nene? Dream on. Sam Dalembert? Not the answer. Sitting in front of a desk along Biscayne Bay, you evaluate the other options. Going the trade route is a possibility. Problem is, no one's knocking on the door for Mike Miller or Udonis Haslem after their injury-riddled campaigns in 2010-11. The only organization that values Joel Anthony enough for a five-year contract is yours. You're not trading any of the Big Three for obvious reasons. So, the void at center for the Miami Heat hopelessly remains.
Then the phone rings.
Otis Smith, the general manager for the Orlando Magic, is on the other end.
Dwight Howard for LeBron James.
That's the proposal on the table.
Tomorrow, it will be December 2011. While the new collective bargaining agreement will be kinder to Riley and the Heat than anticipated, it won't be easy to flesh out the roster in Miami. Unless a top-flight centers or point guards offer them obscene discounts, the Heat will venture forward over the next few season with James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh -- and whatever they can accumulate with various exceptions, marginal draft picks and veteran minimums.
Over the next several weeks, you will hear dozens of plausible scenarios that send Howard to any number of cities for any combination of players, but absent among them will be James to Orlando for Howard.
On the surface, it seems ludicrous -- but why? Isn't the goal of a trade to find fair value? When you take the time to appraise what Howard is worth, there isn't a more equitable deal out there.
There's also a good argument that a Howard-for-James swap could improve the Heat:
This would be like filling the Grand Canyon with the Grand Teton. At center, Howard is the best defensive presence in the league. Erik Spoelstra is a defensive architect who, in 2009-10, managed to scrap together the third-best squad in defensive efficiency with a frontcourt of Michael Beasley and Jermaine O'Neal. Put Howard and Spoelstra together and it's hard to imagine the Heat not becoming the basketball version of the Steel Curtain.
... For the Heat, swapping James for Howard would put Wade back as the primary option and, perhaps more importantly, allow the Heat to space the floor with a knockdown shooter. Having James or Wade stand in the corner wasn't a threatening formation, but deploying a sharpshooter such as James Jones as a decongestant? There's a reason the Heat's offense was at its best (113.3 points per 100 possessions, according to basketballvalue.com) when Jones took the floor.
Would the Heat lose some offensive punch with Howard instead of James? Perhaps, but be very careful about discounting the effect of better spacing. Chris Bosh could play in the high post and midrange, where he's most comfortable. Wade wouldn't have to worry about taking turns. (In November, Wade went as far as to say, "You don't want to take two shots in a row.") The Heat couldn't trot out two sharpshooters at the same time last season without taking something away defensively, but with Howard, that wouldn't be an issue.
When the Heat were at their most dominant last season, there was a still a tacit admission that they were an imperfect team, more of an experiment than an ideal. As Haberstroh writes, Howard would give the Heat a more conventional composition -- the ball-dominant perimeter slasher, the stretchy efficient power forward and the imposing big man underneath. For those who need an equivocal response to the question, "Who takes the last shot," a Wade-Bosh-Howard troika would provide the answer.
Truth be told, it's not going to happen. The Heat moved mountains to assemble this team, and they can live with whatever deficiencies exist in a lineup that features James, Wade and Bosh.
But as silly as a Howard-for-James swap might sound, it's probably a far squarer deal than those that'll generate the most traction.