Dwight Howard trade a tough one for Mavs

Just as July's free-agency period opened as a one-superstar scramble, the summer '13 version is officially hard-charging toward its own lone-star stampede, and even a shot at that prize seems a long one.

With Thursday's reported four-way trade that adds Dwight Howard to the All-Hollywood Lakers with Kobe, Stevie, World Peace and the sympathetic, 7-foot Pau, the premature and disappointing ending for the Dallas Mavericks -- who happen to open in L.A. on Oct. 30 -- is it's inconceivable for even the most indecisive Howard to do anything next summer other than sign for five years and $100 million to live and play in L.A.

Consider D-12 off the superstar wish-list that now starts with Chris Paul.

It's a bitter pill for the Mavs and a front office that couldn't close Deron Williams a month ago and kept faint hope that the Orlando Magic, having grappled this long with a Howard deal, would just hold onto him or eventually ship him to Houston, where he might then prefer to ship off to Big D. Dallas reportedly was Howard's third trade choice behind the Nets and Lakers.

Unlike those two teams, Dallas didn't have the assets to do a trade now; they watched this one from the outside all the way. But, unlike those two teams, the Mavs have cap space for next summer, if only Howard would get there. The odds were always slim and that's how it appears it will play out.

The deal also might have taken out another big man next summer with Andrew Bynum, the league's second-best center behind Howard and nearly as befuddling upstairs, headed to Doug Collins and the Philadelphia 76ers, the team that plays an hour from Bynum's boyhood home of Plainsboro, N.J.

Like Williams did and as Howard and Bynum might do, Paul can simply go into free agency July 1, falsely raising hopes of teams with cap space earmarked for a superstar, and re-sign with the Clippers for the same max deal Williams got with the Nets. And like the Nets, the Clippers will be able to offer Paul about $25 million more than anybody else, same as the Lakers' advantage to keep Howard.

Howard, 26, Bynum, 25, and Paul, 27, will almost assuredly actually reach free agency. A puzzling quirk in the new collective bargaining agreement allows players to sign with their current teams for more money and more years as free agents than if they agree to an extension during the season. For Paul, the season must play out, but what would be his motivation to leave franchise-anchor Blake Griffin and an improving team?

Landing a superstar isn't easy, and it isn't getting easier.

Once D-Will tweeted his decision to the world on July 3, Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson set out to assemble as competitive a roster as possible while carefully managing the '13 cap flexibility by keeping contracts in most cases to one year and at the right price. With some maneuvering next summer, the Mavs will again be the rare big market team in position to land a free-agent alpha dog -- a big fish.

Of course, there has to be one.