Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Keep Firm, Magic

Incredible as it may seem, LeBron James has been replaced as the biggest villain in the NBA. He's not even the biggest sports villain in the state of Florida, anymore. (I almost didn't put that sports caveat in the last sentence, but then I remembered George Zimmerman and actual bad things that people do outside the fundamentally harmless realm of sports. How quickly we forget.) It took an almost unparalleled lack of business sense and self-awareness, but Dwight Howard has firmly taken over the role of NBA Public Enemy #1.

Dwight Howard has an image problem, and also looks like he just caught a whiff of Hedo Turkgolu.
Just like with LeBron, it doesn't bother me that Howard doesn't want to continue playing for the team that drafted him. Players have very little control over where they initially play and a hard cap on their earnings, which is not how the labor market works for in-demand talent in really any other realm of business (I get that people in finance kind of have to work in New York, but they can at least choose the firm). The Magic have actually crafted a roster around Howard's specific skillset, but they're a fringe contender at best as currently constituted. LeBron's teams were real contenders, but any team with LeBron James is a contender. Still, I don't care that Howard wants to leave; it's his prerogative. What bothers me, and everyone else, is how Howard's handled this potential move.

Howard has sandbagged his own trade value by publicly being such an assclown, and claiming that he'll only sign with the Nets, and he's put the Magic, who are trying to unload him, in a very precarious position. Here's my advice to the Magic: there are only two players that you should swap Howard for essentially straight up, and they both reside in Los Angeles, as I assume Kevin Love is completely off limits. If you can't get Andrew Bynum or Blake Griffin, then don't make a trade at all and force Howard to make the decision to leave himself. Of course, none of these players are Howard's equal, but you either need to come out of this with a legitimate building block for a contender or nothing at all.

It won't actually be that hard for Dwight Howard to leave as a free agent at the end of the year. Some people have made the claim that he'd be leaving close to $25 million on the table if he were to bolt, and that's true in a whole sum sense. But it's a bit more complicated, as the Magic can offer 5 years/$100 million, where any other team can only offer 4/75. In four years, Howard will be 30 and he can get another max contract at that point. Actually, knowing the shelf lives of physical centers (and considering he came into the league at 18), there's a chance he's in better shape to get one more max contract at 30 than 31, so he could potentially make himself more money. This would have made even more sense last year, had Howard not panicked and put off his free agency by another season.

As we've written numerous times on this blog, nothing is worse than being the middle class in the NBA. The Rockets are perpetually there, too good to bottom out and get a lottery pick but not nearly good enough to come close to contending. By trading Howard, the Magic could get the remaining core of the Hawks or the Nets and some mediocre picks, but that would put them right in that range of the Rockets. If they want to just rebuild, then they should take the plethora of picks the Rockets have stored up and are offering in a three-way deal that would net them Bynum, with Howard moving to the Lakers. Absent getting a game-changing player or tons of picks, however, the Magic would be best served to just play the season out and put the pressure on Howard.

This isn't a matter of principle, though you could phrase it that way. It's the way the NBA works. If Howard cares about his brand (and that seems to be the reason he's so insistent on going to Brooklyn) he's not going to half-ass this season, so the Magic would get one more year as a semi-contender. If LeBron gets hurt (a big if, but still), maybe the Magic could even make a run at the finals, though it's pretty doubtful. At the end of that, Howard would have to make a decision, and he's already shown himself the type to second-guess. If he stays, the Magic get to build around one of the best players in the NBA. If he leaves, better to be in dire straits than winning 44 games a year with Al Horford and Josh Smith.

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