When Chris Paul was dealt to the Clippers on Dec. 14, it appeared Dwight Howard's change of address would soon follow. The Orlando Magic All-Star and reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year had been the focal point of several trade discussions, most notably with the Nets and Lakers. But Magic general manager Otis Smith and CEO Alex Martins abruptly pulled Howard off the trade market after deciding none of the offers they received was worth executing.
That didn't stop the rumor mill, however, or even slow it down. Howard went public with the information that he had requested a trade in early December, citing a deteriorating relationship with Smith and continuing doubts over the direction in which the team was headed. The team had given Howard's agent, Dan Fegan, permission to talk to the Nets, Lakers and Mavericks.
The 26-year-old started the season averaging 20.2 points per game and a league-leading 15.5 rebounds per game, but has been frustrated with his team's performance. Unsurprisingly, he has not backed off his trade request.
So after deciding against making a blockbuster deal before the season started, the Magic still face the same dilemma with their franchise cornerstone: trade him, or risk losing him as a free agent in July. Unless Howard gives the team a clear indication that he's had a change of heart, Smith will have little choice but to pull the trigger on a trade.
A Howard trade also represents a potential opportunity for the Magic to unload a pricey contract such as Hedo Turkoglu's, since the team would make assuming a bad Magic contract part of the price for obtaining the All-Star center.
A Lakers trade package would be centered (get it?) around Andrew Bynum, but Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak would have many obstacles to overcome before he could partner Howard with Kobe Bryant. While Bynum legally can be traded straight-up for Howard, it would be difficult for L.A. to provide the Magic with the basketball assets they would be seeking in a deal. Now that Lamar Odom is coming off the Dallas Mavericks' bench, the Lakers' only remaining significant trade asset is Pau Gasol. However, the Lakers are reluctant to part with both Bynum and Gasol, even for Howard.
The Lakers would need to send out an additional $8.3 million in salaries to make room for Turkoglu if the Magic insist on including the forward as part of a package for Howard. Unfortunately, the $8.9 million trade exception the Lakers acquired by dealing Odom to Dallas can't be used for this purpose, since a trade exception would need to be big enough for Turkoglu's entire $11 million salary. It's difficult to envision Kupchak finding a package of Laker players -- short of Gasol -- who would meet the salary requirements and persuade the Magic to pull the trigger.
But the biggest impediment to a Lakers deal isn't related to the trade rules -- it's overcoming the resistance on the part of both teams. Magic owner Rick DeVos has been reluctant to allow his team to lose a second franchise center to the Lakers (after Shaquille O'Neal in 1996), and the Lakers don't want to pay such a steep price for what could amount to less than a season of Howard's services. A source close to the negotiations says Howard's representatives warned the Lakers that Howard would opt out of his contract and test the free-agent market next summer -- which has the Lakers' brass understandably nervous.
The Nets have had their own difficulties in pulling off a deal -- a three-team trade (which included Portland) centered around Brook Lopez was in the works before the Magic abruptly pulled the plug. Shortly thereafter, the Nets center went down with a stress fracture in his foot. While the Nets are confident that he will be healed by the time the Magic are ready to deal, it's by no means certain that Lopez will be fully recovered in time.
A metatarsal stress fracture is a cause for concern with someone of Lopez's size, but the Nets remain confident that his injury will not thwart a potential trade. At worst, the Nets view the Magic as needing to choose between Lopez's injured foot and Bynum's chronically bad knee, and feel that Lopez (and New Jersey's draft picks) is the better alternative.
The Mavericks are the third team to which Fegan was given permission to speak, but do not appear to have the trade assets that will entice the Magic. Unlike the Lakers and Nets, the Mavs do not have a frontline center able to fill the enormous vacuum that would be left in the wake of Howard's departure (sorry, Brendan Haywood fans, but it's true). At this point, the Mavs appear to be positioning themselves to try to sign Howard outright in the 2012 free-agent market -- an amnesty waiver of Haywood, followed by waiving or trading players without fully guaranteed contracts (Odom, Vince Carter, Sean Williams, Brandan Wright) will provide the team with the necessary cap space. Moving Shawn Marion for expiring contracts would further position the Mavs for a big free-agent splash -- perhaps providing enough cap room to pair Howard with Deron Williams.
Any other team interested in Howard would be contemplating an enormous risk -- giving up significant assets to acquire the franchise center, only to face the distinct possibility of losing him as a free agent. The Bulls are one team that would be very interested, but only if they could have Howard as more than just a short-term rental. Howard originally expressed reluctance about relocating to Chicago, but may now be open to the idea.
There was also a report that Howard added the Clippers to his wish list, but Smith said neither Howard nor Fegan identified the Clippers as an acceptable destination. As such, Smith has not given Fegan permission to talk to the team at the other end of the Staples Center hallway.
The Magic now appear determined to hold on to their center until at least the Feb. 26 All-Star Game. If they do not trade him before the March 15 trade deadline they will risk losing him as a free agent, which gives Smith an 18-day window to complete a deal. There are only a few scenarios for how this can play out:
• They can go the Chris Paul route, in which Howard agrees to void his early termination option as part of a trade -- locking himself in with his new team for the 2012-13 season and delaying free agency for one year. This could help assuage the nervousness some teams (like the Lakers) are feeling about acquiring a short-term rental. Of course, Howard would not agree to this option unless he were prepared to spend an extra season with his new team.
• They can do an extend-and-trade transaction, in which Howard signs an extension with the Magic that is contingent on a follow-up trade. The team would be one of Howard's choosing, since the extension is null and void if the trade to the specific team does not follow within 48 hours, and Howard would not sign the extension unless he was dealt to a team that met his approval.
• However, the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) significantly limits the value of extend-and-trade transactions -- Howard can receive only three years, and 4.5 percent raises. The three years includes the two years remaining on his current contract (2011-12 and 2012-13), which means Howard would add only one additional year to his contract -- through 2013-14.
Because of this limitation, an extend-and-trade is an unlikely scenario.
• They can complete a trade without an extension, letting Howard extend later with his new team. But the new CBA prohibits extensions within six months of a trade if the extension gives the player more years or money than he could have received in an extend-and-trade. In other words, this scenario is now identical to the extend-and-trade scenario.
If a trade had been completed by Dec. 30 it would have left a small window to sign a larger extension before June 30, but even this would have been too limiting. Howard could have added only two new years with 4.5 percent raises -- so he still would have been better off by becoming a free agent this summer. Despite rumors to the contrary, Howard did not lose a significant amount of money when he was not traded by Dec. 30. This deadline only mattered if Howard was going to sign an extension.
• Howard could leave the early-termination option in his contract unexercised, and play one additional year with the Magic before becoming a free agent. This would give Smith additional time to try to tweak the team into a contender before facing the loss of his franchise cornerstone, and would also pay Howard a higher salary ($19.5 million) than he could receive by re-signing as a free agent ($19.0 million). But Howard's trade request and continued criticism of his team makes this an unlikely scenario as well. It is now more likely than ever that Howard will become a free agent this summer, and Smith needs to make a trade to avoid the risk.
Howard must invoke his out clause by June 1 or within three days following his team's last game (including playoff games), whichever comes later. If his team is still playing on June 23, then he must inform the team of his intent by June 25. If this deadline passes and Howard has not exercised his out clause, he will be locked in through the 2012-13 season.
• Howard can play out the season with the Magic, become a free agent and re-sign with the team for the long haul. This is similar to the previous option, except with a long-term commitment. The Magic obviously hope this is the option Howard chooses, and they also hope the team can have enough success this season to convince him to stay. But while the Magic's 11-4 start looked promising, the team just lost five of six to fall to 12-9. Most notably, Howard ripped his teammates for their lack of effort after a blowout loss to the New Orleans Hornets.
At best, Howard might give Smith another year to convince him of the team's direction -- and even that seems like a stretch. It's highly doubtful he'd make a multiyear leap of faith with the Magic.
• Whether he remains with the Magic or has been traded to a new team, Howard can exercise his out clause, become a free agent this summer and sign with a different team. This scenario provides Howard with the greatest flexibility, as he could sign with any team that clears enough cap room to offer an acceptable contract -- with New Jersey and Dallas the leading candidates. However, his new contract will be limited to four years and 4.5 percent raises ($81.1 million total). This will be Howard's fallback option if the Magic do not trade him, or if they trade him somewhere he does not intend to stay.
• Whether he remains with the Magic or has been traded to a new team, Howard can exercise his out clause, become a free agent this summer and work out a sign-and-trade deal with the Magic (or his new team) to be dealt to the team of his choice. If Smith does not make a trade by the March 15 deadline, this would be the only way to get some value in return for his departing All-Star. However, this scenario comes with a significant risk -- Howard only needs a sign-and-trade if his preferred destination doesn't have the cap room to sign him directly -- the Lakers, Clippers and Bulls would need a sign-and-trade, but the Nets and Mavs wouldn't. Why would Smith want to bank on the availability of a sign-and-trade when half the teams on Howard's A-list could cut out the middleman and deal with Howard directly?
Under the previous CBA, a free agent could get a better contract by participating in a sign-and-trade -- 10.5 percent raises instead of 8 percent, and six years instead of five. But under the new CBA, Howard can get a favorable contract only by re-signing with the team he ends the season with, so Howard has no reason to pursue a sign-and-trade unless his team of choice is capped out.
Finally, the Magic could trade Howard to a team that meets his approval on or before March 15. He would exercise his early-termination option in June, then re-sign with that team as a free agent. Since Howard's Bird rights are traded with him, he would be eligible for the largest possible contract, with five years and 7.5 percent raises ($109.2 million total).
This would be Howard's preferred option, since he gets both the team of his choice and the best possible contract. However, the team that acquires him would be assuming a significant risk -- once Howard becomes a free agent, his team cannot prevent him from signing elsewhere. A team like the Nets or Lakers would want assurances from Howard's people that he would re-sign before they commit significant assets to a trade. The Nets may have received this sort of assurance. The Lakers, Clippers and Bulls have not.
The most likely scenario, therefore, is that Howard will be in a Magic uniform for the Feb. 26 All-Star Game, but we will see him in a new uniform soon afterward. Howard's best option is to become a free agent this summer -- wherever he ends up -- so we can expect a certain amount of panic in his new team's front office in July as he contemplates his future -- deciding whether to re-sign or move on.