Before all of Wednesday’s craziness, with Dwight Howard reportedly willing to pick up his option for 2012-13 then not pick up his option for 2012-13, Chris Mannix, my colleague at SI.com, tweeted that some folks in the All-Star center’s camp indicated that he would have interest in signing long-term with the Heat or the Clippers.
Howard is eligible for a starting salary of nearly $19 million next season on a new free-agent contract with a team other than the Magic, and neither the Clips nor the Heat will have anything like the kind of cap space necessary for that kind of deal. The Heat are totally capped out years into the future and will likely pay the luxury tax for at least the next four seasons. The Clippers can work their way to a middling bit of cap room if they use the amnesty provision on Mo Williams, but once you factor in charges for empty roster spots, you’re talking about $5 million to $6 million in cap room. Howard probably doesn’t want to go to the Clippers that badly.
But in theory, it’s interesting to talk about whether the Clippers, Heat and a few other teams uninvolved in the Howard bidding should get themselves involved — assuming Howard’s flakiness and inability to commit on Wednesday didn’t deter teams from gambling on him. Howard is indisputably one of the league’s top-five players, its best big man and defender, and he just turned 26 a few months ago. He has already logged nearly 25,000 minutes between the playoffs and the regular-season, but there is not reason to expect any major drop-off in his level of play over the next half-dozen seasons. This is a transformational player, and transformational players are worth having out-of-the-box conversations about.
It has been popular almost since “The Decision” to suggest that the Heat think about trading LeBron James to Orlando for Dwight Howard. James and Dwyane Wade have overlapping skill-sets, the theory goes, and the Heat would jump another level by trading one of them for a player that has no duplicate anywhere. The Heat don’t have a “true center,” and they compensate in part by over-rotating in order to protect the lane, a strategy that can leave perimeter shooters open — provided Miami’s opponent is smart, quick and savvy enough to thread swing passes through lanes the Heat close faster than anyone. LeBron has the salary necessary for an easy trade match, and the Magic could never do better than getting the very best basketball player in the world.
Alas, real life does not work like fantasy basketball. James is the best player alive, in his prime, and any GM who deals the best player alive in his prime is taking an unreasonable risk. A weaker version of this Miami team nearly won the title last season, and the current version, fortified with greater depth on the perimeter, has the most efficient offense in the league and the fifth stingiest defense. The Heat, as constituted, are the favorites to win the 2012 title, and messing with that so dramatically mid-stream makes little sense.
If anything, last offseason might have been the time for Miami to at least broach this internally, and had it done so, it would have been wise to use Wade rather than James as the bait. If you have two stars with semi-overlapping skill-sets and one team in need of a rescue trade package, why not dangle the star who’s three years older, a few inches shorter and working through more wear and tear on his feet and legs?
Then you run into the next question: Would the Magic accept a 30-year-old Wade in exchange for Howard? Or would they rather “roll the dice” with younger players? Or simply let Howard walk in free agency, bottom out with a cheap-ish payroll and hope to hit the lottery — the same way they got Howard in the first place?
The Heat/Howard discussion exists mostly in the theoretical realm at this point.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
If I worked in the Clippers’ front office, I would learn everything I could about Howard’s interest in coming to the Clippers — and playing for my slum-lord boss — and staying over the long haul. Would he at least opt in for the final year of his contract, as Chris Paul agreed to do? Would have really have a problem playing with a pass-first point guard who only cares about winning? Is it possible he has no idea who Donald Sterling is?
The Clippers have the ultimate trade chip: Blake Griffin, the league’s most marketable big man, more than three years young than Howard. (Griffin turns 23 on Thursday.) Too much uncertainty about Howard’s future would make this a non-starter, but it’s important for teams to think creatively.
Analysts love to nit-pick Griffin’s offensive game — his raw and predictable post moves, his shaky jumper, etc. But warts and all, Griffin is an absolutely devastating offensive player. He draws automatic double-teams in the post, and those raw moves are effective nearly every night. He is already among the best passing big men in the league. In business terms, Griffin is one of the three or four most popular players in the league, and the Magic will need someone to keep the Amway Center full post-Howard. LeBron might be the only better candidate to do this.
What Griffin is not: a good defensive player. As Ethan Sherwood Strauss has noted, Griffin has a fairly short wing span for his height, meaning he’ll never been a lane-clogging, play-the-angle genius in the mold of Kevin Garnett. He’s a top-notch rebounder and a great leaper, obviously, but he does not have the makings of an elite rim protector or a guy capable of regularly blowing up pick-and-rolls.
With the caveat that we’ve only seen Griffin play defense under Vinny Del Negro, the results so far have been scattershot but mostly discouraging. The Clippers switch a lot on pick-and-rolls, and Griffin — by direction of his coach, I’d assume — has chosen mostly to sag back on ball screens, rather than jumping out to cut off a ball-handler eager to turn the corner. Like most young bigs, his back-line rotations have been inconsistent, and at least a few times per game, he and DeAndre Jordan will shoot each confused looks after an opponent scores an easy basket.
Griffin will get better, but he’ll never approach Howard as a defender. Howard is there already, right now, just like Chris Paul and his surgically repaired knee, and if you teamed the two together with a decent supporting cast, the results would be devastating.
Alas, the mechanics are complicated. Griffin makes “only” $7.7 million this season, meaning the Clippers would have to send out at least $7 million in additional salary to make the deal work. The easy suggestion would be to toss in Jordan’s $10 million salary, but doing so leaves the Clippers with only Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans as rotation bigs behind Howard. That’s not good enough, and the Magic aren’t going to be eager to add Ryan Anderson, their best young player, as a throw-in. The Clippers, for their part, might be wary of swallowing Glen Davis’ long-term contract.
But keeping Jordan at his salary makes little sense in the event the Clips land Howard. It would be difficult to play the two together, since neither has any real shooting range, and one would have to guard some quicker/stretchier power forwards.
Put all of it together, and the Clippers may well have to find a third team — probably one of the teams with cap space — interested enough in Jordan to make the deal work and supply Los Angeles with another big man. Such a team may also require a first-round pick for their participation, and the Clips aren’t exactly rich in those right now.
Would the Pacers, perhaps worried about losing Roy Hibbert in free agency, take Jordan as insurance and send the Clips the struggling Tyler Hansbrough? Would the Kings, who used a twin towers lineup last season, try the same with Jordan/DeMarcus Cousins and send out Jason Thompson, set to be a restricted free agent this summer? Would the Cavs take Jordan and a first-round pick in exchange for sending the Clips Anderson Varejao in a three-way deal? (Note: Los Angeles would have to include a medium/small salary such as Randy Foye’s to make some of these deals work.)
All three scenarios seem unlikely, for reasons of fit, cost (Varejao’s contract is a fantastic value deal for Cleveland), and because Jordan has shown little development this season. His minutes have dropped since the Clippers acquired Martin, and he has barely seen the floor in crunch time lately.
The Clippers’ front office and all you trade machine gurus can probably come up with better alternatives. Ultimately, it’s probably too much risk for the Clips’ brass to take on, especially given Howard’s flakiness. Griffin is only a year away from restricted free agency, but it is almost unheard of for a team to lose a star via restricted free agency.
NEW YORK KNICKS
I can barely spill any more ink about the Knicks, but suffice it to say, things are chaotic there, despite a blowout win against Portland. Mike D’Antoni is gone and Mike Woodson is in (for now). The team lost six straight before Wednesday’s 121-79 win at home, there were reports early Wednesday that Carmelo Anthony requested a trade (he refuted them), the team cannot score efficiently or defend all that well with Anthony on the floor, Amar’e Stoudemire is a shell of himself, and on, and on and on.
From chaos springs opportunity, though, right? Why can’t the Knicks, flush with three massive salaries, make a play for Howard? Stoudemire’s uninsured contract and shaky play this season make him untradeable. Cross him off. A Howard/Tyson Chandler swap doesn’t offer quite enough for the Magic, given Chandler’s age. But an Anthony/Chandler for Howard/Hedo Turkoglu trade does work and makes a bit of theoretical sense for both teams. Side note: Swapping just these four would take the Magic a hair over the tax line, so they might try to add Chris Duhon into the deal.
The key here is the development of Jeremy Lin. Without Lin, dealing Anthony and Chandler for Howard/Turkoglu would leave the Knicks rudderless on offense, with two expensive big men and no full-time perimeter distributor. But now Lin is here, and recent struggles aside, he appears to be a league-average starter for his position, one the Knicks can re-sign using their mid-level exception this summer.
Turkoglu, for all the chuckling directed at his bloated deal, is still an above-average three-point shooter who runs a smart pick-and-roll. He’ll earn $11.8 million next season, but he’s owed “just” $6 million guaranteed in the 2013-14, the final year of his current deal. Buy him out for that price, and the Knicks save about $7 million compared to what they’d otherwise pay Chandler, giving themselves at least a bit of financial flexibility below the tax.
Of course, Orlando would have to want this package, and despite the glamor names involved, I wonder if it would. Chandler and Anthony are scheduled to earn $39 million combined in 2014-15, and in a conference headed by two juggernauts in Miami and Chicago, the Magic might rightly believe paying this sort of long-term money to these two players is a less wise course than a total teardown.
But it’s fun to think about, and smart teams think about everything.