|With the Lakers the wild card in the Dwight Howard scenario, will Pau Gasol be involved? (US Presswire)|
We endured the Melodrama. We tolerated the CP3 fiasco. History may very well say that neither had anything on the Dwight Dilemma.
This is a nightmare facing the Orlando Magic, the possible and seemingly inevitable departure of Dwight Howard from central Florida to center stage somewhere else. Whether the Magic try to get a superstar, prospects and draft picks or simply keep Howard and dare him to take less money to leave, it already is shaping up to be a tenuous six weeks for the franchise that still hasn't lived down the loss of Shaquille O'Neal.
Rival executives say Magic GM Otis Smith has been keeping a low profile lately, and it doesn't appear that Howard is going anywhere soon. Sources said Howard's business and marketing reps engaged in a lengthy conference call this week to plan a party in Howard's honor during All-Star weekend in Orlando. They wouldn't be spending the money or expending the effort on such an extravaganza if Howard wasn't going to be representing the Magic in the All-Star Game in his home arena.
But here's the thing: The Magic might be able to make it through February with Howard, but not past the March 15 trade deadline. Not unless they're willing and prepared to watch him walk.
All the superstars in the recent conga line out of town have something in common: They got the team and city they wanted, and they got the max money, too. LeBron James got it in Miami, Carmelo Anthony got it in New York and Chris Paul got something in between; he got out of New Orleans and will have the chance to get max money from the Clippers if he wants to stay. With a new, more restrictive collective bargaining agreement, one of these stars with eyes for greener pastures eventually is going to have to put his money where his wanderlust is. One of them is going to have to stare at a big pile of money -- $25 to $30 million -- and pass it up on the way out of town.
Is Howard that guy? At 26, the fifth year and 3 percent more in raises that Orlando could offer him as a free agent next summer isn't as crucial as it sounds. This is especially true since, if Howard is still in Orlando the morning after the March 15 trade deadline, he'll know that he won't be able to do what James did to get to Miami. He won't be able to get max money in a sign-and-trade. And he can't do what Anthony did, because max money in an extend-and-trade is no longer an option in the new CBA.
If Howard wants to go to Dallas or Brooklyn, what difference would it make whether he made that additional $25 million in the last year of a five-year deal with Orlando or the first year of a new deal when he becomes a free agent again in 2016? As long as he stays healthy, the answer is simple: no difference.
If Howard wants to be a Laker, his only path there would be via trade. Would the Lakers give up Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, who returned this week with three straight double-doubles and the first 20-20 game of his career? The Lakers say no, but that's easy to say in January when the trade deadline is in March. The Lakers very clearly are the wild card in the Howard scenario.
Rival execs are dubious that a Nets package centered around the injured Brook Lopez and first-round picks will be enough to entice Orlando. In that case, the Nets' bid to get a third team involved will be crucial to their efforts to add the one player who could persuade Deron Williams to embrace the organization and the move to Brooklyn. But with Williams' body language already suffering during the Nets' 1-6 start, observers say to be on the lookout for D-Will to soon lose his will to stay in New Jersey long enough to make it to the New York City boroughs.
"I don't think he feels it there," said a person who knows Williams and his tendencies well. "I could see him saying, 'I've got all the money. I can go back to Dallas. That's my home.' I don't see any spunk in his game right now. He's going through the motions."
This is where the Magic's nightmare scenario intersects with doomsday for the Nets. If the Magic elect not to trade Howard -- thus showing their fan base that they did everything in their power to keep him and he still wouldn't stay -- or trade him somewhere besides New Jersey, the Nets would be sunk. Having given up Derrick Favors, two first-round picks and Devin Harris for Williams, the Nets would be devastated if Williams passed up the money for a chance to return home to Dallas -- something those who know Williams say the headstrong point guard might just be bold enough to do.
Throw into the mix that with a couple of moves -- amnestying Brendan Haywood and buying out Lamar Odom -- the Mavs would have room for both Williams and Howard, and this cruel game of musical chairs could bring two franchises to their knees.
It's a tangled web, which we'll attempt to unravel in the rest of this week's Howard-heavy Postups:
• A factor not to be dismissed in the Howard saga is his endorsement deal with Adidas. Top executives with the shoe company have made no secret of the fact that they'd like nothing more than to see Howard in either New York or Los Angeles. With fellow client Derrick Rose in Chicago, Howard would give Adidas a stronghold in two of the country's three biggest markets and the wherewithal to challenge Nike. "They'd love to corner those two markets," said a person connected to the sneaker industry. "They'd be in heaven, I can tell you that."
• There are also indications that Brooklyn isn't viewed as the only avenue for Howard to give Adidas a foothold in New York. With the Knicks (2-4) off to an abysmal start -- losing at home to Toronto and Charlotte this week on the second night of back-to-backs for both substandard teams -- already there are rumblings of discord on the coaching staff. The confusion and lack of commitment to new defensive assistant Mike Woodson's schemes is painfully evident -- "We're trying to improvise on the fly, and you can't do that," defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler said -- as is the tenuous situation for head coach Mike D'Antoni. If the acquisition of Anthony last February wasn't evidence enough, the addition of Woodson has only underscored how D'Antoni's influence within the organization has waned. D'Antoni is coaching in the final year of his contract without an extension offer forthcoming, an issue that threatens to consume whatever momentum the Knicks built last season.
If the Knicks keep struggling, the focus will spread from the coaching to the roster, and sources advise not to be surprised if the notion of a possible deal sending Amar'e Stoudemire to Orlando for Howard gains traction. If the Magic opt to convert Howard into a superstar of reasonably comparable stature, they could do a lot worse than selling Stoudemire -- a central Florida native -- to their restless fan base. The biggest issue would be Stoudemire's uninsurable knees, but there is risk involved in every scenario Orlando will be presented with between now and March 15. From the Knicks' standpoint, such an arrangement would break up the ill-fitting offensive combo of Stoudemire and Anthony and allow the versatile Chandler to move to the power forward spot, where he'd be a terror as a weak-side shot blocker and in Stoudemire's spot as the roll man in D'Antoni's pick-and-roll offense. A deeper question exists in whether Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan would sign off on trading Stoudemire, who was the only star willing to commit to the Knicks and embrace the challenges of New York in July 2010. For the aforementioned reasons, sources say it's plausible but unlikely that the Knicks and Orlando would be able to get any such talks off the ground. For one thing, it makes too much sense.
• The situation in Sacramento with DeMarcus Cousins has been festering for more than a year, and it's clear the Kings are at their wit's end as far as how to rein in the talented but virtually uncoachable sophomore. It's no surprise to one front office executive who advised his staff and coaches that in the event Cousins were still on the board when they picked in 2010, they should run far and fast and not look back. "I told my coaches, 'You guys can't handle dealing with him. He'll kill you,'" the executive said. "'Trust me, 30 days into the season you'll give up on him and it'll be on our back.'" Sure enough, that's exactly what happened in Sacramento last season, and with a young roster with no established veteran to put Cousins in check, the situation has gotten worse. There are only two types of trade situations that figure to be viable for Cousins. The first would involve a team desperate for frontcourt help, like the injury-depleted Nets or the equally awful Wizards, who could pair Cousins with former Kentucky teammate John Wall. But what Cousins really needs is a coach with a history of tempering headstrong egos and a locker room packed with veterans who would hold him accountable. It's hard to envision a better situation than the Celtics, who'd have Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to teach Cousins a lesson. But despite Cousins' All-Star potential, even the Celtics are extremely wary of jeopardizing their chemistry by taking on such a risk.
• The timing of Andrei Kirilenko's announcement Saturday that he intends to play the entire season with CSKA Moscow was curious, considering the Russian forward still had another week to opt out for a return to the NBA without his new team being on the hook for the standard $500,000 buyout. Sources say the Raptors, who could use Kirilenko's production and versatility at the small forward position, were among the teams that registered inquiries with Kirilenko's representatives. But the Raptors took a pass and opted to preserve 2012 cap flexibility as new coach Dwane Casey tries to establish a new defensive culture in a transition year for the franchise.
• Speaking of Casey, the former Mavs' defensive guru, early returns have been positive in his effort to gradually transform the perennially deficient Raptors defense into a serviceable one. Toronto (3-3) is 14th in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing 99.3 points per 100 possessions after being dead last a year ago with 109.8. "It's one of the toughest things you have to do in sports, whether it's football, baseball or basketball, is to change an offensive-minded team into a defensive-minded team," Casey said. "We had to do it in Dallas. Avery Johnson had started that process, and we kind of got in the middle of it." Casey equates the challenge of instilling a defensive mentality in his offensive star, Andrea Bargnani, to the process he went through with Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas. "Dirk was a great offensive player, but by the end he was talking defense," Casey said. "That's the process we're going to go through here. ... I'm selling it every day, the guys are buying it right now and the proof is in the pudding."
• As bad as things look for the Knicks, a positive sign emerged from their back-to-back clunkers against the Raptors and Bobcats. On their final offensive possession of the Toronto loss, Anthony missed a 3-pointer and told everyone afterward that the play called for him to go for a tie with a quick 3. This made no sense when 17 seconds allowed plenty of time to go for a quick two and foul. Sure enough, sources say that's what the play D'Antoni drew up actually did call for Anthony to do, but point guard Toney Douglas ran the play wrong. Douglas was supposed to split Anthony and Chandler, causing defensive confusion and allowing Chandler to set a screen for Anthony, who would either pass to Chandler for a dunk, drive to the basket or take a 3-pointer as a last resort. Instead, Douglas ran to the corner, botching the timing and the spacing for Chandler's screen-and-roll. Anthony, exhausted at that point and positioned behind the 3-point line with no screener, had no choice but to launch the errant 3. So what's positive about this? Instead of throwing Douglas under the bus, Anthony covered for him and took the blame himself. The negative is that Douglas' mistakes only continue to underscore the Knicks' need for a point guard to orchestrate their offense, which would allow Douglas to occupy his ideal role as a scorer off the bench -- and off the ball.
• One more note on the Howard situation. With the future of the franchise teetering on Howard's decision, multiple people plugged into league front-office dealings say it's no sure thing that Smith, the GM, will be the one making the final decision on whether to trade Howard and where. With the resignation of Bob Vander Weide and promotion of Alex Martins to CEO, rival executives believe Martins is the one calling the shots. And among those shots could be adding to the Orlando front office, which is thin by NBA standards behind Smith. The most experienced and capable candidate on the market is former Hornets GM Jeff Bower, who has solid relationships with the Magic front office staff. Bower also worked with Martins in New Orleans. Tony Ronzone, the former assistant GM in Detroit and Minnesota, also is a free agent and sources say he'd be amenable to joining a revamped Magic front office with Bower in the lead role. Thus far, Martins has not reached out to any potential candidates as he settles into his new role, but sources believe the direction of the team -- and Howard's fickle approach when it comes to staying or leaving -- could prime the pump for sweeping changes.