Examining A Potential Dwight Howard Trade

Darius Soriano —  December 7, 2011

In a vacuum, trading for Dwight Howard is a no brainer. He is, by any measurement, the premier big man in the league. He’s been the defensive player of the year 3 years in a row, has been the 1st team all-NBA Center four years in a row, was 2nd in last year’s MVP vote, and is a fixture at the all-star game. In a league where being an elite two way player boosts your value exponentially, Howard is the best of the best. And while every player has his detractors and no player is perfect, these are the facts.

But trades don’t happen in a vacuum. The other team must agree to take on players and there are ramifications – both on and off the court – that play into any decision. Trades of this magnitude are never as easy as fans would like them to be and the issues at play can submarine a deal as quickly as the original rumor pops up.

So, exploring this potential trade from a variety of angles is necessary:

What would a potential deal look like?
Despite the desire of Laker fans for Orlando to act quickly and go all in with the cards they’re dealt by dealing Howard soon, the Magic are choosing to slow play their hand. From Orlando’s perspective, this is natural. No one likes to give up their superstar player and, furthermore, acting quickly doesn’t necessarily net them the best deal. They’ll surely try to keep Howard at all costs but claiming they plan to keep him is their best attempt to gain short term leverage in talks in order to sweeten any offer that comes their way.

From the Laker perspective this means they must be prepared (and surely understand) that there is not a deal to be made that doesn’t center around Andrew Bynum and at least one other big man – likely Lamar Odom. Offering Bynum and LO means the Lakers surrender two thirds of their versatile big man group and leaves them wanting for depth in the front court. Fans only need to look at last year to see how not having capable bodies as back up bigs can hurt a team’s chances. As the season progressed, Gasol withered on the vine as extended minutes took their toll on his lanky frame. He played valiantly, but the body only has so many 40+ minute nights in it. With a condensed season coming up, capable depth will be needed, even with Howard’s tremendous durability soaking up minutes and games.

Beyond the depth issues of such a deal, we must also identify who the Lakers get from Orlando besides Howard. One of the reasons the Magic are even exploring a Howard trade is because their roster has two of the worst contracts in the league clogging their salary cap in Gilbert Arenas’ and Hedo Turkoglu’s deals. Surely Orlando wants to dump one of those contracts on whoever trades for Howard – and likely Arenas’. Taking on that contract may be a non-starter for any trade to happen, so swapping in Hedo instead is much more likely. Hedo offers a varied skill set with strong ball handling and good outside shooting. He’s got good size for a SF and can play good positional defense, though his commitment to doing so can be lacking.

Are the Lakers willing to take on one of these players? If they want Howard, they’ll likely have to. Which brings us to…

The cost of doing business.
Starting in the 2012 season, the Lakers new TV contract will kick in. According to a report from Sam Amick (and later confirmed by Kevin Ding), the Lakers new deal with Time Warner is valued at 5 Billion (capital B) dollars over 25 years. This could mean the Lakers have $200 million of revenue before selling a single ticket, parking pass, or beer on game night. That number is incredible.

What’s also incredible is how much a Laker roster will cost if a simple Bynum/Odom for Howard/Turkoglu trade were to happen. According to the salary database at Sham Sports, the Lakers have a shade over $61 million committed to their 2013-14 payroll. And all that money is going to 4 players: Kobe, Pau, MWP, and Steve Blake. That same season, Turkoglu has a player option for $12.1 million. A max contract for Dwight Howard (which is what it would take to keep him after he opts out of his contract) will hover around the same $22 million that Pau is owed that same year (it’s not yet clear what a max deal for Howard would look like as the final terms to the CBA have not yet been released). When you add all that together, you have a payroll of about $95 million for 6 players and a need to fill out the rest of the roster.

But wait, there’s more.

I’m using the 2013-14 season as reference point because the new CBA will have stiffer penalties for luxury tax paying teams starting that season.  Instead of the dollar for dollar penalty that’s currently in place, tax paying teams will pay an additional 50 cents for the first $5 million they spend over the tax line ($1.50 total) with an additional 50 cents added on for every additional $5 million of payroll spent ($2.00 for 5-10 mil, $2.50 for 10-15 mil, etc). 

But wait, there’s even more.

The new CBA will reportedly have a “repeat offender” provision related to teams habitually going above the luxury tax line. If a team is above the tax line 4 times in a 5 year stretch, an additional dollar will be added “at each increment” of tax spending. This means, if the Lakers are a tax paying team 4 straight years (or, as no one seems to be mentioning, even if they’re a tax team in year 5 after getting below the tax in year 4 – effectively meaning they need to be under the tax two straight years in any 5 year stretch) their tax commitment balloons. In a post at Land O’ Lakers, Larry Coon explained it thusly:

The Lakers’ tax bill in 2011 (when the tax was dollar-for-dollar) was about $19.9 million. Under the new system, being that far over the tax line would cost them $44.68 million. If they were a repeat offender (paying tax at least four of the previous five years) they would owe $64.58 million!

Are the Lakers willing to shell out this money? Even with their new TV contract, the question needs to be asked and answered in the affirmative should they make this type of trade. In the past, it was rumored that Jerry Buss’ drop-dead payroll line was $100 million, including the luxury tax. In the last couple of seasons, the Lakers zoomed past that in pursuit of a championship, but not by too much (about 10 million this past season). What will that new drop dead number be? And if the Lakers go over it, how far are they willing to go. The new CBA will test the Buss’ pocketbook like never before.

The on-court merits.
On the court, having Howard in the fold would be a boon, though. Mike Brown, for all his talk of a twin tower approach for this season, has consistently been a “4 out, 1 in” offensive coach that’s relied on the P&R with shooters spacing the floor. It’s the type of offense he’s ran the majority of his career. Obviously some of this will change with LA’s personnel, but Howard is the prototype big man for these types of sets. Stan Van Gundy has run similar actions for Dwight during their entire time together. Howard has a developing mid-range game that can compliment weak-side post ups by Gasol and/or Kobe and his ability to go to the offensive glass means his man will have trouble helping or be exposed when Dwight crashes the glass.

Also, the P&R opens up with Howard doing the screening. Kobe may not be the best shooter coming out of P&R’s, but as a playmaker he can be sublime. No one (save for maybe Blake Griffin or Amare) rolls as hard to the hoop and demands the type of attention that Dwight does. And while Bynum and Gasol are no slouches in this area, Dwight’s power and decisiveness going to the front of the rim forces the defense to rotate to him or he will get a dunk on his dive to the cup. This threat means defenders not only must adjust on the backline of the D, but also how they play the ball handler. Kobe could benefit greatly by having more space to turn the corner should the hedge-man stay stuck to a rolling Howard or he could have passing angles open up all over the floor as defenses scramble on the back side.

Not to mention Gasol and Howard have the types of games that really do compliment each other. Pau has moved his game more to the short wing in recent seasons and has flashed a greatly improved jumper. Having Pau make strong side catches in the mid or high post with Howard occupying defenders at the rim means Pau can continue to shoot his short J or use the extra space that Howard creates to attack off the dribble. Plus, the combination of Pau’s passing and Howard’s brute strength means back side duck in’s will be more frequently rewarded with pin point passes from one big to another. Can you imagine Pau throwing Howard alley-oops and nifty bounce passes as he cuts to the rim? I can.

I also exchanged emails with long time FB&G contributor Reed and he had the following to say about Howard:

I watched Howard very closely last year — probably closer than any non-Laker player. Something about him grabbed my attention. I haven’t really dived into the numbers on this, but he seemed to clearly impact the game for good more than any other player in the league last year — when just thinking about points scored and points saved. He is such a force on offense that the entire defense has to be aware of him; he gets the other team into the penalty quickly (imagine what an early penalty would do for Kobe’s closing abilities); he forces double/triple teams; he runs the floor in transition; he creates spacing for easy three points shots; etc. His presence creates the easiest kinds of scoring opportunities — points in the paint, free throws, and clean three point looks. And he probably impacts the game on defense more than any single player impacts either end of the court. You simply don’t get good looks in the paint when he’s on the court, and he accomplishes that without fouling. Lebron is the more skilled, well rounded player, but I felt that Howard had a higher net impact on the game last year.

The Future.
At some point the Lakers must build a team that doesn’t account for Kobe Bryant. I hope we don’t have to deal with his retirement for a while, but Kobe won’t play forever. There’s something to be said about grabbing the next great player for a team with as much history as the Lakers. The presence of a player of his stature, style of play, and personality means that tickets will continue to be sold, people will continue to tune in, with the team continuing atop its perch as a marquee, relevant franchise. I’m not sure what that’s worth, but is worth something.

In the end, I don’t know if Dwight will be a Laker or not. The Magic will have a lot to say about where he goes – if anywhere – and when he goes there. There’s also a lot of gray area to navigate through and nothing is as straight forward as it might seem. For now all we can do is wait, but while we do, the big picture does need looking at.

Darius Soriano

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