“The only thing that matters is the present right now,” Howard said when asked about his free agency. “There’s no need for me to talk about what happens at the end of the season, and there’s no need to go back and forth about it. I just feel like, at the end of the year, that’s when I should have my opportunity to make my own decision. And I shouldn’t be pressured or criticized for waiting until the end of the year. I don’t think it’s fair for my teammates. I don’t think it’s fair for the fans or anybody to be worried about what’s going to happen at the end of the year.”
Dwight Howard has become quite deft at answering questions about his future. The statement above is from a scrum at all-star weekend, but just as easily could have been handed out at the Lakers’ media day in October or before the Christmas Day game against the Knicks, or a couple of weeks ago after a win over the Nets. Howard’s response has become a canned statement, and for what it’s worth, I’m perfectly okay with that. Some feel that Howard should give a commitment through the media and let fans know that he’s going to stay, even if that’s really not true. Personally, I see little value in that.
Why lie? Just to get the media and/or fans off your back? What happens if/when you go against your word and leave? Won’t those quotes come back to him and end up making him look even worse? In Oklahoma City, fans and media were quick to cite James Harden’s quotes about not needing the max to remain with the Thunder after declining a max offer directly led to his trad to Houston. These are more than soundbites; they’re the record that will be used for/against you later on.
Which makes statements that Dwight also made a bit more interesting than the boilerplate language he’s been using all year. From the same Amick column:
“There’s no need to talk about (free agency),” he had said during the un-fun scrum. “I want to have fun. I want to enjoy myself and not talk about free agency or what I’m going to do at the end of the season.”
And this: “I’ve got to do what makes me happy. That’s it.”
And what makes you happy?
“Having fun on the court,” Howard said. “That makes me happy.”
Are you having fun now?
“Not at the present time, no,” he said. “Hopefully it gets better.”
In reading the tea leaves, this statement implies doom and gloom. It is, after all, a simple formula: Dwight likes fun; Dwight isn’t having fun; Dwight will leave in free agency.
Of course, if you were to have a brief conversation with some Lakers’ fans, they’d tell you something else that hasn’t been that fun: watching Dwight Howard play basketball this season. Howard, mostly due to health issues, but also due to ability (or lack thereof) to work within the context of a role that he hasn’t seemingly fully embraced, hasn’t been the impactful player he’s been earlier in his career. And while his numbers are still very good — he’s leading the league in rebounds, is 5th in blocks, 4th in FG%, and is averaging 16 points a game — there’s been more than a slight carry over of the bad feelings he’s inspired since the lead up of his departure from the Magic.
These hard feelings are one variable that complicates how people feel about Howard. A lot of people don’t like Howard and that means the benefit of the doubt no longer resides with him. It also means that the things he says get picked apart just as the game he plays on the floor does.
Health is another variable. As Dwight has told us, he’s not yet 100% healthy. In fact, he’s not close. His back is “75%” and when combined with a torn labrum, he’s clearly playing hurt. And while the shoulder — either through rest or surgery — should heal just fine, his bad back (and the resulting nerve issues that he says make his legs “go numb”) are another story. No one knows for sure if his back will be the same again and that uncertainty leads to questions about his athleticism, physical dominance, and ability to play the style that made him Dwight Howard in the first place.
These uncertainties must weigh on the Lakers, even if they publicly say their mindset on Dwight hasn’t changed. In the face of a report that the Lakers engaged in “preliminary” talks with the Celtics about a Dwight for Rajon Rondo swap (a swap that the report itself said wasn’t likely at all), Mitch Kupchak reiterated that Dwight would not be traded (while flatly denying those talks even happened). While I won’t get into the he said-he said, it would not surprise me that some form of a discussion occurred (one as mild as “how about X” with a “no” following). And, I’d add that it would be wise of the Lakers to engage in such discussions moving forward.
Forget, for a moment, the risk that Dwight leaves in free agency and the prospect of losing him for “nothing” in the off-season (we’ll get to that scenario soon) and instead realize one simple thing: Dwight Howard is an asset to the Lakers now, and as long as he’s under contract. And, maximizing their return on that asset should be their number one concern now and moving forward.
For today, that may mean gauging his value on the open market as a trade piece. The reported discussions with the Celtics (irrespective of how preliminary they were) are much more important not because of the names in the deal or because it’s likely to happen, but because there was a discussion at all that started to establish what it might take to get the Lakers to trade Howard. As far as anyone not name Mitch Kupchak or Jim Buss knows, a package may not exist to make that happen this season. But finding out what other teams consider a starting point for those discussions is information all the same. And that information has immense value in how it can inform decision making.
Beyond this season, the Lakers must also think about Howard’s value as an asset. In terms of signing him to a long term contract — which the Lakers still have the inside track to do if only because of the difference in total value — the Lakers would be wise to keep their current mindset intact and try to get a deal done. The Lakers, as a high payroll team, have certain limitations on how they can construct a roster. Because they currently pay the luxury tax, they can’t receive players in a sign an trade, they can’t use a full mid-level exception, and they can’t use a bi-anual exception.
These facts put a greater emphasis on trades (and the draft) when constructing a roster. They also mean that their biggest commodities are the players they have on their roster and their ability to either get them to perform to (or above) their projected ceiling or find a way to flip them for other players who will. Said another way, a player under contract — especially one like Dwight Howard — is more valuable in house than he is walking away for nothing. Even if he’s making max money and not playing at the level he was before he had back surgery. Remember, any contract can be moved later for approximate value. If you don’t believe me, look at the trade the Grizzlies just made when sending Rudy Gay to Toronto.
The Lakers, then, are best served exploring their options with Dwight and understanding that as long as he’s under contract, he can be used to make their team better. Whether that’s through his own play — which, as mentioned earlier is still at a pretty high level — or through the trade market. Ideally, the Lakers keep Howard, he further’s his recovery and he approximates the player he was in Orlando pre-injury. That player was a top 5 talent and a guy who instantly makes the team he’s on a title contender. If he remains the player he is today, he’s an efficient offensive player, high volume rebounder, and a very good defender who will have value on the trade market at whatever his contract pays him. Not to mention, that player is still very useful to the Lakers and helps them win games.
If Dwight were to leave for nothing, the Lakers lose a key asset — one of the few they possess — that can help their roster. No, they wouldn’t be lost without him as the team would still have Gasol, Kobe, and Nash and would be able to use the exceptions available to them to fill out their roster. That trio along with a few quality role players can still be a dangerous team, even though it’s not a top flight contending one. Also, not having to pay Howard’s salary would also help the Lakers in their pursuit to shed payroll and operate closer to the realities they’ll face within an NBA that punitively punishes high spending, luxury tax paying teams. These are variables that can’t be ignored, especially if we’re going to look at the entire picture of operating an NBA franchise and not just the talent that appears on the floor.
Make no mistake, the Lakers have questions to answer when it comes to Dwight Howard and their future.
Regardless of how he’s viewed as a personality or even within the context of his performance this season in comparison to past ones, Dwight is a valuable player. His long term health affects that somewhat, but doesn’t override it to the point that he should suddenly be viewed as an asset that can simply be discarded. That said, we must remember the value of an asset is the product of an equation that comes down to more that just what a player does on the floor. It’s influenced by what can be fetched a trade, the avenues available in how a team can build a roster under the new collective bargaining agreement, and a slew of other factors.
What all this means for Dwight Howard’s future remains to be seen. As he’s said multiple times, he has a decision to make. Just as the Lakers do. The fact that they move on now without Dr. Buss adds another variable to this, but doesn’t change the end game for this team. They want Dwight Howard in house today and for the long term. Whether that’s as an on floor contributor to them or as an asset that’s ultimately traded.