Free agency suits Dwight Howard better

As Michael Wallace tells us, Dwight Howard is throwing a little cold water on the idea he needs to be moved before Thursday's trade dealine:

"We've been talking, like I said, for a while," Howard said after leading the Magic to a 104-98 overtime home victory against the Miami Heat. "I told them I want to finish this season out and give our team, give our fans some hope for the future. But I feel they have to roll the dice. It might be tough, but I feel we've got a great opportunity. But they've got to roll it."

Here are two of a hundred ways you could take that:

  • After a brilliant performance in an emotional overtime win over the Heat, Howard is fired up about the potential of the Magic.

  • If the Nets have to trade for Howard, they'll have to gut his next team, which will make winning in Brooklyn tough and hurt Howard's brand.

In other words, even if Howard's entire focus is on getting to the Nets, or any other team with max cap space, his smartest strategy is to get there as a free agent next summer. That way his next team will still have players like MarShon Brooks and a hope of competing. A trade only makes sense if he is set on joining a team that will be at or over the cap this summer.

Also, remember a great point that Kevin Arnovitz has made many times: If a team like the Magic is going to lose a superstar, the worst thing you can do is get a good player back. Replacing a superstar with a good player makes you a bubble playoff team with a pretty big payroll, which is a ticket to almost permanent mediocrity. If you're all out of superstars, you want draft picks, cap room and the kind of miserable play that results in lottery appearances.

Cleveland has Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and some long-term hope ... and they'd have none of that if they had traded LeBron James for a player in his prime. Instead they went into rebuild mode, when losing James for nothing but picks was ideal.

It's a messed up world, but that's the way these things work in the NBA.

And a final point, to all those who hate how much power superstars have in this situation, I'd point out that Howard can call his own shots here because he is so incredibly valuable. And a big part of the reason he's so valuable is because he's paid so much less than he's worth. Owners are falling over themselves to please him, because getting him at the bargain-basement price of a max contract is like winning the lottery compared to what he can do with your franchise.

In other words, if you want to see Howard with a little less power to make team owners line up and beg, the solution is easy: Let him earn what he is worth. Cutting and pasting from an earlier TrueHoop post:

If the Heat could pay Dwyane Wade $50 million, and the salary cap or luxury tax line was around $60 million ... well the most likely thing is that Wade will play on a one-star team. For competitive balance, that's huge. This is the first proposal I've heard that would get bad teams what they really need to compete: stars.

If stars could make infinite amounts, Wade would have long ago snarfed up all the cap space in Miami, and LeBron James and Chris Bosh would be giving hope to NBA fans in other cities.

Similarly the Lakers would have been paying Bryant $50 million a year for the last decade, which would likely have made some Pau Gasols and Andrew Bynums available for the NBA's lesser teams.

The haves and have-nots in the NBA right now are not strictly big and small markets. The cities of Cleveland and Miami are about the same size, and both are willing to spend big on star-laden teams. The haves and have-nots in the NBA are teams with stars (Oklahoma City and San Antonio included). The most precious resource in the NBA, the only resource essential to contention, is a star or two.

Teams without stars are the competitive balance issue.

Clearly, owners love that they have capped those stars' contracts. It's a bit of a boondoggle. And the union has played along, essentially taking money from the best players to shore up the middle class -- a noble act, to a degree.

Meanwhile, stars are a windfall for any owner lucky enough to employ one. But those way-below-market star deals not only bring a chance to contend, but also extra revenues to pay other players. If the NBA is as serious about improving competitive balance as they say they are, the obvious move is to set their sights on maximum contracts.

All that applies to Howard right now, too. If he were making $30 or $50 million a year, the Magic would have a ton of say in where Howard plays, because he'd have very little ability to find other teams that could take on his deal. And you may feel like he's not worth that much, but the market screams otherwise.