As Dwightmare 3.0 commences on Monday, the dawn of 2013 free agency in the NBA, we'll all be enthralled with the latest player-movement storylines. None is more juicy or more tailor-made for the Twitter age than where Dwight Howard will play basketball next.
On the verge of joining his third team in two years, Howard already has his wine-and-dine meetings arranged with potential suitors. The Rockets will tip things off shortly after the start of the free-agent negotiating period at 9:01 p.m. Pacific Time on Sunday (12:01 a.m. ET Monday) in Los Angeles. The Mavericks, Hawks and Warriors also are sending contingencies to LA to recruit the All-Star center in a full-court press to lure him away from the Lakers.
The Lakers get the last word, and the meetings aren't expected to drag on much past Tuesday. Howard, sensitive to the beating his image took on his way out of Orlando and wanting to avoid the kind of "Decision" backlash that dragged LeBron James' Q rating into the gutter for the better part of two years, plans to decide his future by the end of the week.
The options are tantalizing and potentially career-shaping for Howard, who has made one NBA Finals and won no championships in nine seasons. With the Lakers, Howard has the big-market glitz and glamour that he craved, but now could be swayed by other factors -- such as a better chance to contend for a championship.
In Houston, with James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons, that opportunity could come immediately. In Dallas, Howard might have to wait a year, for in the summer of 2014, when the Mavs would have enough cap room to lure two more max players in addition to Howard. Next summer, after all, will be the Summer of LeBron again, with James holding an early termination option (ETO). Ditto for Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony.
In that way, the Mavs and Lakers are similarly situated in their pursuit of Howard. Entering what is expected to be Kobe Bryant's final season, the Lakers have only one player, Steve Nash ($9.7 millon) on the books for 2014-15 -- and Nash, 39, would be a strong candidate to be released with the "stretch" provision in the 2011 CBA, which would spread his payments out to provide more room to add free agents.
(Incidentally, we'll probably see the first use of the stretch provision this summer, with Toronto's Landry Fields a leading candidate, league sources said.)
The Warriors, who would have to orchestrate a major salary-dump trade or acquire Howard in a sign-and-trade, are a long shot at best to land him. As for the Hawks' plan of pitching Howard on the possibility of coming to his hometown with fellow free agent Chris Paul, that's going to be a non-starter. With the Clippers' acquisition of coach Doc Rivers, Paul's representatives already have started informing teams the All-Star point guard isn't going anywhere.
According to a person familiar with Howard's free-agent strategy, the fifth year and higher annual increases Howard could receive by re-signing with the Lakers isn't expected to be a determining factor. Though leaving LA with a four-year deal would cost Howard $30 million in the short term, a player option or ETO after the third year of the new deal would make him a free agent again at age 30. Barring a career-ending injury, Howard would recoup the lost earnings in the first year of his next max contract. In the meantime, if he chose the Rockets or Mavericks, the absence of state income tax in Texas would soften the blow.
As the Twittersphere is flooded with gossip about how Howard's meetings are going and who's leading the horse race, his recruitment will obscure other significant storylines. As with the Nets' acquisition of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the courtship of Howard is an outlier on the NBA landscape. The game of trying to lure free-agent superstars is reserved for only the select few in the NBA, while all others continue to play by different rules.
Including the aforementioned suitors, at least a third of the NBA's 30 teams have enough cap room -- or could easily create it -- to sign Howard. But you won't be reading about the Jazz, Bucks, Pistons, Cavaliers or Bobcats making recruiting trips to LA this week. They all play in a different league. Even the Spurs, who were 28 seconds away from winning their fifth championship of the Tim Duncan era, are avoiding the Dwight sweepstakes despite having the flexibility to do so.
This being the first year of the NBA's more punitive luxury-tax rates, it's the first free-agent signing period to test the boundaries of the new CBA -- which was supposed to level the playing field and equalize the opportunity to compete regardless of market size. With their bold trade for Garnett and Pierce, the Nets already have blown a crater-sized loophole in that theory. Unlike the 25-plus teams whose sole purpose is to avoid the various tax thresholds, the only question for the Nets is who will be the recipient of their $3 million, taxpayer mid-level exception. The expenditure will cost billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov $15 million including taxes, raising the Nets' payroll and tax to an NBA-record $176 million for next season, according to league salary data.
Only the Lakers and Knicks play by such rules, which is why the Lakers won't be on the cusp of ruin if Howard decides to leave. They'd simply endure one bad season and then load up on free agents next July, because they can.
This phenomenon highlights one aspect of competitive balance that the 2011 CBA has not fixed. In the rare instances when high-profile free agents leave the biggest markets, the recovery is far less daunting. Those destinations are destinations for a reason. On the flip side, if Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis leave Milwaukee, how are the Bucks going to replace them? They're looking at a five-year recovery process -- and that's just to put together a team that can narrowly achieve the eighth seed and get swept in the first round again.
If Andre Iguodala follows Anthony's lead and bolts Denver, how do the Nuggets fill the void? It's been three years since Bosh left Toronto and James left Cleveland, and both franchises are still treading water. In Orlando, a Garnett-Pierce trade wasn't even a pipe dream this summer. No true max free agents are going to Orlando next summer, so the Magic's only hope to recover from Howard's departure is to rebuild one draft pick at a time.
Removing the incentive for free agents to do sign-and-trade deals and reducing the length of extensions for prospective free agents has driven stars more courageously than ever toward unrestricted free agency. And while the basketball world is focused on Howard's courtship with the "haves" this week, the behavior of the "have nots" will be interesting to track.
Among the many teams with cap room, which will be the one to max out Iguodala -- a high-level defender and good all-around player who isn't punching anyone's ticket to the Finals? Will someone max out Timberwolves free agent Nikola Pekovic? Will someone pay Tiago Splitter $12 million a year, only to come down with a severe case of buyer's remorse by the February trade deadline?
What if O.J. Mayo, set free by Dallas to clear room for Howard, winds up taking the taxpayer mid-level from the Nets? Is that the kind of "player sharing" that David Stern had in mind?
If the Jazz, as expected, decide it's better to bottom out and get a high draft pick next year rather than pay Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap, what will the market be for those players?
Under the old rules, the kind of cap money that's in the marketplace this summer would be spent before the sun came up on July 1. If the new rules and higher tax rates work, there will be a lot of free agents with $10 million-plus salaries dancing in their heads who will have to opt for a lot less.
"The bi-annual will be the new mid-level," one team executive said. "A lot of really good players will have to settle for $2 million."
In theory. The free-agent marketplace is flooded with money this summer, and it remains to be seen whether the majority of teams who actually care about the luxury tax will spend it. Beyond all the Dwight Howard gossip you're about to read, that's the real story.