Free Agency has begun and with it, the rumor mill is running at full speed. The Lakers haven’t been active in the sense that they’ve gotten anyone to agree to a contract, but they’re reportedly showing interest in several players – both their own and ones from other teams.
This activity shouldn’t surprise anyone – the Lakers need to improve – and with their limited resources a shotgun approach that canvases the league in search of upgrades is one way to try to fill those holes. Plus, Mitch Kupchak has expressed his desire to hit a homerun this off-season and that requires aggression.
The player whose acquisition would most equate to hitting it out of the park is Dwight Howard. On Friday he met with the Magic’s GM and reiterated the fact that he’d like to be traded. Reports then put the Lakers in the conversation as one of the teams that would like to trade for him. However, since then, reports also state that he only wants to be traded to one team – the Brooklyn Nets – and that they’re the only team he’d commit to long term (either through a contract extension or as a FA when his contract expires). So, this would theoretically put the Lakers out of the equation. After all, if he won’t sign a contract extension with the Lakers (or re-sign with them after next season), the point is moot.
Long story short, the team that owns Dwight’s Bird Rights is the team that will have the inside track to keeping him long term. The CBA has effectively done two things concerning player movement: First is that it’s made extending current contracts less lucrative than becoming a full fledged free agent and then using your Bird Rights to re-sign with your current team. Second, the CBA has made the difference in Bird Rights contracts and non-Bird Rights contracts bigger, meaning it’s more lucrative than ever before to stay on with the team that holds those rights.
If you had any doubts about this, look at Deron Williams’ stance right now. He’s reportedly deciding between staying in Brooklyn or leaving to play in Dallas. The difference in the contracts the Nets can offer versus the one the Mavs can offer is an extra year and roughly $25 million. Even though a star player can recoup that extra year in his next contract, the proverbial bird in the hand of that extra money and year right now is going to be appealing to any player. Which would explain the reports that Williams is leaning towards staying in Brooklyn.
As for Dwight, what further makes his proclamations about being all in for the Nets complicated is the fact that the Nets are reportedly interested in acquiring other players whose contracts will effectively remove their cap space moving forward. They’ve already inked Gerald Wallace to stay on for the next four years (at $10 million a year) and have Luis Scola and/or Joe Johnson on their radar as well. If either of those deals were to go through, there’s a strong possibility that the Nets wouldn’t have the cap space to sign Dwight outright next off-season. Said another way, if Brooklyn really is Dwight’s preferred destination the need to get there now via trade is very important because getting there as a free agent next summer may not be possible unless he takes less than the max (and potentially way less).
All these potential issues conspire to give Dwight’s next team (even if it’s not the Nets) the leg up in keeping him long term, making the prospect of a Howard rental less daunting. That said, should a team still take that risk?
Last off-season I examined a potential trade for Dwight and all of those positives remain true today. While I remain a Bynum believer – his skill set, size, and improvement trajectory are all impressive – there’s no question that Dwight is the better player. If player A is a multi time all-star, 1st team all-NBA performer, top 5 MVP finisher, and 3 time DPOY while player B is a one time all star and has made the all-NBA 2nd team once, there’s no debate.
But even with all these factors potentially making a Dwight acquisition more than a worthwhile risk, the question still remains if the Lakers should make their push to get the best big man in the game. And that’s where things get murkier. Howard is currently recovering from back surgery – which is still a very big question mark for a player whose athleticism contributes to so much of his success. His recent PR gaffes speak to a person who either gets bad advice or has a hard time sticking to decisions he makes. We often vent about Bynum’s maturity issues, but it seems Howard has some of his own and he’s an even longer tenured player with more experience dealing with the demands of being an NBA superstar. When you combine these factors with his strong intimations that he’d prefer to play in Brooklyn long term (and, by inference, not in Los Angeles) those are a lot of variables to overlook if making him a priority acquisition.
How the Lakers weigh the pros and cons of trying to go after Howard aren’t known. Are they dissuaded enough by him preferring to ply his trade in New York? Does his back worry them? What about his recent run of regrettable flip-flops? Or, maybe they trust in their franchise history and the fact that they’d be able to offer the most money next off-season. Most free agents look at two things: where the most money is and what’s the best situation. When the former is in the Lakers’ favor, it’s been some time since the latter wasn’t also right at (or above) any other teams’ status.
My gut tells me Dwight finds a way to get where he wants. Superstars normally do. But the Lakers must still have the discussion as Dwight’s that good a player and having him means you have one of the best 5 players in the league. That can’t be ignored.