After 48 hours of absurd theater, Dwight Howard has decided to stay with the Magic for the 2012-13 season, waiving the early termination option he could have used to enter free agency this summer, according to an exclusive late-night interview Howard gave RealGM’s Jarrod Rudolph. Howard’s decision, while a victory for the Magic, does not amount to a long-term commitment at this point. We could be revisiting the “Where is he going?” scenario off and on for the next year.
Here’s a quick look at what this means for Howard, the Magic and other teams around the league:
This represents a chance for the Magic, but it will be hard for them to improve their supporting cast around Howard before the league’s best big man can become a free agent again in the summer of 2013. Including Howard’s massive $19.5 million deal for next season, the Magic have about $60 million in salary committed to nine players. That does not include J.J. Redick’s non-guaranteed $6.2 million contract or any money for Ryan Anderson, set to be a restricted free agent this summer. Redick and Anderson have probably been Orlando’s second- and third-best players this season, and they are essential as either cogs around Howard or trade bait to net a star-level second fiddle — should one become available.
It’s almost painful to think how much more interesting this summer could have been for the Magic had they not committed $24 million in 2012-13 salary to Glen Davis, Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu, though in fairness, the blockbuster trade that brought in the latter two players appeared defensible at the time, when Orlando was coming off two straight seasons in which it was (along with Cleveland and Boston) the cream of the Eastern Conference. The landscape had changed by then with the ascension of the Heat, but in December of 2010, when the Magic snagged Richardson and Turkoglu to boost its flagging offense, the league was still uncertain about what to make of Chicago and its ferocious defense.
Of course, the Magic also acquired Gilbert Arenas in that deal, and they have since used the amnesty provision on him, meaning they cannot do so to remove Turkoglu’s salary from the books. They also did not have to extend Richardson nor sign-and-trade for Davis, the latter move reportedly at Howard’s urging.
The Magic might have cap room in the summer of 2013, when Howard will be a free agent, but they may not have much, depending on what happens with Redick, Anderson and any other personnel moves the Magic pull between now and then.
In short, this is only a temporary reprieve for Orlando, and their front office knows that. The Magic are a very good team, capable of beating anyone on any night, but they do not appear to have the horses — especially on offense — to beat both Miami and Chicago four times in seven tries. Orlando’s brass understands it must either upgrade around Howard or continue trade talks at some point. If more teams achieve greater cap flexibility for next season, more suitors could emerge for Orlando to talk to.
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The Nets had been working on two fronts over the last few days, prepping both trade offers for the Magic and reportedly talking trade with the Bobcats in order to free up more cap space to ink Howard, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez in free agency this summer. Howard has blown up those plans, and the Nets obviously have to be worried that Williams, for whom they surrendered several prime assets to Utah, will scan New Jersey’s roster and get out of dodge by declining his $17.8 million player option for next season. He would not lack for suitors, with the 2011 champs itching to get the first meeting. The Nets would then have max-level cap room and no max-level superstar on whom to spend it.
The silver lining, if there is any, is that all the flotsam on New Jersey’s cap sheet — Jordan Farmar, Shawne Williams, Johan Petro, etc. — expires after next season. The Nets, as of now, have precisely $0 in guaranteed money on the books for 2013-14, though they are sure to exercise their cheap rookie deal option on MarShon Brooks. With Howard off the free agent market, they could feel comfortable paying what it takes to bring back Lopez while trying to convince Williams that they can go back at this thing a year from now. Their potential Howard trade package remains the same as ever.
There will always be free agents; Josh Smith and Andrew Bynum, for instance, could hit unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2013. But there is no getting around it: This is a massive blow for New Jersey.
The Mavs, as I’ve documented, were not going to have the cap space this summer to offer both Williams and Howard max-level deals. They have plenty of room, however, to offer one such deal to Williams, and Howard’s one-year delay gives them extra time to offload salary they probably weren’t going to be able to jettison by this summer. They’re still set to pay about $20 million in 2013-14 to Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood and Vince Carter, but they have amnesty in the bag for Haywood, and the deals attached to Marion and Carter will get easier to move as they creep toward expiration. Lamar Odom’s deal vanishes completely by that time, and the team holds only options in 2013-14 on Roddy Beauboius and Dominique Jones.
Depending on Dallas’ luck in dumping money and what happens to the salary cap in 2013-14 — it should jump — the Mavs could be able to make Howard a near-max offer in free agency even if they have both Nowitzki and Williams on the books by then for about $40 million combined. And if they are lucky enough to land Williams this summer, they can try to convince some ring-chasers to sign on via one-year deals for a fun 2012-13 season.
We’re getting into the realm of the unknown here, but it’s worth at least looking at how Howard’s opt-in changes things for a few would-be suitors, known suitors and currently capped-out teams for which Howard has reportedly expressed his (fleeting) affection. A few quick notes:
• Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks are finally set to have major cap room in the summer of 2013, though they get it only because Smith’s contract expires after next season. His potential cap hold would soak up nearly all of Atlanta’s theoretical cap space, and they would also have some money reserved for Jeff Teague, a restricted free agent after next season. Still, the Hawks get a little more flexible at that point than they are now.
• Los Angeles Lakers: Once thought to be Howard’s dream destination, the Lakers still have $50 million committed in 2013-14 to Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant. Even leaving aside guaranteed money for Metta World Peace (an amnesty candidate) and Steve Blake (possibly gone by this afternoon), it’s hard to see any scenario in which the cap jumps high enough for the Lakers to make a real offer to Howard. Bynum could be come a free agent after next season, which provides the double-edged sword of flexiblity and a $20 million cap hold that effectively wipes out the Lakers’ cap space — and then some.
• Los Angeles Clippers: Still an intriguing trade partner for the Magic, if Los Angeles has the stomach for it. Both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are set to enter free agency after next season, though Griffin will of course be a restricted free agent, meaning the Clippers will have the right to match any competing offer for him. Once you include cap holds for the Clips’ franchise duo and a team option on Eric Bledsoe, their salary figure for 2013-14 jumps to about $56 million. That takes them out of the bidding, at least in straight free agency. A sign-and-trade is always a possibility.
• Miami Heat: Capped out, and over the probable tax line, well into the future.
• Chicago Bulls: They owe their four core players — Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng — about $58 million in 2013-14. They have the amnesty provision in hand, but they would appear to be a trade partner only, and one in whom Howard is reportedly uninterested.
• Boston Celtics: Nothing really changes for Boston, which has streamlined its cap sheet for every year going forward. They had dreams that Doc Rivers, those 17 banners and the possibility of playing alongside a re-signed (on the very cheap) Kevin Garnett might entice Howard in free agency this summer, and even if that scenario was unlikely, they can try the same basic thing a year or so from now.
• A few other wild-cards to consider:
It’s a bit foolish to look so far in advance given all that can change between now and then, but the cap pictures for a few teams change dramatically between 2013 and 2014, due to the expiration of several huge contracts. Houston, willing now to deal for Howard on a rental basis, could have made a run for him in free agency this summer, and their books only get cleaner next summer, by which time Kevin Martin’s deal expires.
The Sixers will finally wash their hands of Elton Brand’s deal after next season, and depending on what they do this summer with Louis Williams and where the cap falls in 2014, they could have room to make Howard a realistic offer. San Antonio’s books get very clean after next season, when Manu Ginobili’s deal expires. The Wizards (don’t laugh) will easily have max-level cap room in the summer of 2014; they could get there this summer, too, though doing so requires some cap gymnastics linked to Rashard Lewis’ massive contract (about $13 million or so of which is guaranteed for next season) and JaVale McGee’s much-anticipated (by fans of comedy) entry into free agency.
Golden State, another Howard rental team, only has about $40 million on its books for 2013-14, but that doesn’t include a cap hold linked to Stephen Curry, who will be a restricted free agent next summer. The Warriors also just acquired a high-priced center in Andrew Bogut, but his deal runs out after 2013-14, and he’s only about a year older than Howard, meaning he could be an interesting trade chip if/when we all have to jump off this bridge again a year from now.
Utah transitions has all its non-rookie deals expire between now and the summer of 2013, but the idea of Howard signing there would seem fairly preposterous.