Posts Tagged ‘the decision’

It’s been reported that the Magic, Nets, and Cavaliers may be nearing the completion of a proposed trade that would send Dwight Howard to Brooklyn.  The Nets have had quite a summer, pursuing big-money, big name free agents with reckless abandon.  They also locked up Gerald Wallace with a long-term, high-cost deal.  The Nets will push the salary cap to its limit with a Dwight Howard deal, or even if they simply re-sign Brook Lopez.   Widely criticized a month ago for risking too much without a commitment for Deron Williams, the Nets stayed the course, signed Williams, and now have a chance to pair him with Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Dwight Howard, and, well… no one else of note.  Unfortunately it has been proven that these kind of top-heavy teams can succeed, as offensive as they may be to fans of teams in smaller markets who patiently wait through protracted, usually unsuccessful, rebuilding attempts.  “For every Oklahoma City, there are several Torontos.”  Or something like that.

The salary cap, the NBA draft, and trade salary-match provisions are all in place to encourage balance.  Ideally, a team in Orlando or Oklahoma City should have access to enough incentives to retain their own players.  A top draft pick goes through a contract cycle of at least seven years with his first team.  After the first three years, a top draft pick can sign an extension with the team that drafted them, like LeBron James did.  In the alternative, that player could decide not to sign an extension, play through their fourth season, and become a restricted free agent (like Eric Gordon and Roy Hibbert have done).  If the player is a clear top-tier talent, they will most likely sign an extension, because there is no question they will receive a max offer from the team that drafted them and they are free to negotiate the terms of that contract.  LeBron’s extension (four years tacked onto initial four-year contract; player can opt out after seventh year) effectively meant that the Cleveland Cavaliers had him, guaranteed, for the first seven years of his career.  If Indiana matches Hibbert’s offer four-year max offer from Portland, they will have him guaranteed for the first eight years of his NBA career.

This is the cycle of a young star in the NBA.  No matter which route the player decides is best, the provisions of their rookie contracts are built to keep young stars with the teams that selected them for either seven or eight years.  Unfortunately, this period of time has become more of a window than ever before: teams must demonstrate to their stars that they can build a winner, and that it is worth staying in their small market.  When players like Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and others tell their bosses to start looking for a trade despite a contract obliging them to play for their current team for a period of time specified therein, the effect is that the window is lessened by one year.  Although the player is still technically obligated to fulfill their contract, a team that knows their star player is not returning has a duty to try and salvage what they can from his departure, losing leverage with every day that passes.  Chris Paul was traded after six seasons when he informed New Orleans that he wouldn’t re-sign with the team.  His contract still had two years left on it. Carmelo Anthony also dangled a similar factoid to Denver brass, asking to be traded to the Knicks during his eighth season with Denver.  Because of how challenging it is to win an NBA championship and how far a team must come, teams attempting to win one during their star’s six to eight year window do not often meet with success.  It is far more likely that a team will, by rushing to win as early as possible, ruin their chances for long-term viability.

It is difficult for teams to break out of the cellar and into the NBA’s elite. A team with a top draft lottery pick is, most likely, a team without much in the way of talent.  Losing enough games to win the rights to a star prospect isn’t pretty.  As most stars who are drafted high quickly find out, it takes more than one player to experience NBA success.  Teams normally spend two to three years building talent around their young star (if they are lucky enough to acquire a “star” in the draft). If all goes well, they are eventually ready to compete in the playoffs.  After Dwight Howard was drafted, the Orlando Magic went 36-46 for two consecutive seasons as they stripped down their roster and rebuilt around their new star.  They suffered a significant setback when Fran Vasquez, their pick at #11 after Dwight’s rookie year, stayed in Europe for his girlfriend.  In his third season, the Magic went 40-42, locked up the eight seed in the East, and got swept by Detroit.  It wasn’t until Dwight’s fourth season that the team came together: they gave Rashard Lewis one of the biggest contracts in NBA history, signed Howard to an extension, went 52-30, beat the Bosh-led Raptors in the first round, and then lost to Detroit again, this time in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

And then they got their shot: 59-23 in Dwight’s fifth year.  They made it all the way to the NBA Finals, taking down LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers along the way. They lost to the Lakers in five games, and their desperate, short-sighted player acquisitions crippled them from making any further improvements.  Otis Smith, the ex-Magic GM, tried desperately to get the “right” pieces around Howard to get back to the promised land in much the same way that the Cavaliers scrambled with LeBron.  And, similarly, it never quite panned out.  The window closed for the Magic when, in December 2011, Dwight requested a trade.  In a sense, it is a courtesy to extend your team the opportunity to get something back for losing their star by informing them beforehand of your intention to sign elsewhere.  But Dwight not only wanted out, he also wanted to control the process.

Last season (2011-2012), as the trade deadline drew near, it became clear that the Magic planned to trade Dwight Howard.  However, they did not plan to trade him to the New Jersey Nets.  On March 15, 2012, Dwight waived his opt-out clause, essentially committing to playing in Orlando for the rest of the 2012 season, and the entirety of the 2012-2013 season. It is speculation, but many believed that Dwight wanted to be traded to the Nets last season in order to re-sign with Brooklyn in free agency and obtain the additional year under his Bird rights, a favorable contract that wouldn’t be available with Brooklyn if he were traded to any other team.  When no Nets trades were on the table, Dwight had a change of heart.  He “played” the rest of the season (actually he missed the playoffs with an injury!) and promptly requested a trade to the Nets after the season ended.  This time, he was far more blunt: he told the universe that if he was traded anywhere other than Brooklyn, he wouldn’t re-sign with the team that traded for him.  Circumstantial evidence points to Howard convincing Orlando to not trade him elsewhere last season so that he could be traded to the Nets this summer.

Howard’s market value effectively plummeted.  The Nets realize that they have the leverage.  Teams are free to lowball the Magic, as if Howard were already a free agent and this was just a formality sign-and-trade (i.e. when LeBron was “traded” to Miami).  Will the Magic be able to recoup equal value for Howard? Of course not: a team never does with an All-NBA talent.  Will they get enough in return to validate the two seasons of being Howard’s hostage? Absolutely not.  Will they be able to get anything of value whatsoever from Brooklyn in a trade for Dwight Howard?  It seems like the answer is no here as well.  If their return haul is Brook Lopez, Damion James, Shelden Williams, Luke Walton, and three draft picks, then they would be better off making no trade at all.  Lopez will be grossly overpaid.  With all due respect to the rest of the aforementioned players, those are throwaway players who would do more harm than good going through the motions on Orlando’s roster.

As bad as “The Decision” was after seven years with the Cavaliers (and it was awful, lest you forget), at least fans in Cleveland never had to spend time watching their superstar take the court after he made it clear he wanted out.  I can’t imagine how conflicted fans in Orlando felt about cheering Dwight dunks during the post-lockout season.  If fans in Florida were half as passionate and/or hateful as those in Cleveland, he would have been booed out of the building.  As well he should have been.  Part of the blame, of course, is on the Magic for not being wise to Howard’s true intentions, but what Howard has done is manipulate his employment agreement in order to secure a more favorable outcome for himself, harming all other parties in the process.

In order to effectively circumvent his contract, Howard needs the Magic to trade him to the Nets.  Here is where, for the good of the Orlando Magic, and really the entirety of the NBA, I plead with the Magic front office: do not kowtow to Howard’s demand.  The proposed trade with the Nets will do nothing but secure Orlando’s mediocrity.  If Dwight isn’t traded to the Nets, they (most likely) won’t be able to sign him in free agency.  They simply don’t have the ability to do so without Orlando’s help under NBA salary cap rules.  And once it becomes clear that New Jersey is no longer an option, the Magic might actually have some leverage!  Although Howard would like to be in Brooklyn, he won’t be if the Magic refuse to trade him there.  So, why not refuse?  Two can play that game.  Now, Dwight might name a few more teams he would like to be traded to, so here’s a hint: refuse to trade him anywhere that doesn’t give you some modicum of value in return.  At the end of the day, only the team he is traded to, or the Magic if he isn’t traded, can re-sign him to a maximum contract, and go over the cap in doing so with their Bird rights.  This is important to Howard. It’s important to every player.

I’ll take it one step further.  Don’t trade him this offseason unless a killer offer comes across the table.  Most, if not all, of the offers you get will be there at the All-Star break.  And while you’re waiting to trade him, send him home.  Playing him at all will just make their first-rounder in the 2013 NBA Draft less valuable and stunt the growth of younger, more committed players.  His trade value won’t diminish with him sitting at home, and re-establishing the hierarchy in team decision-making to reflect the fact that Howard is not the GM can’t hurt either.  The landscape other than Brooklyn may look bleak now, but I’m betting that Dwight’s “list” expands after the Nets move on.  That is a good thing for the Magic, the NBA, and fans of both. (C. Dirks)