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For Nets, missing on Dwight Howard a setback amid strong offseason

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Dwight Howard’s potential move to Brooklyn is on hold again. (Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire)

Dwight Howard is a punch line now. In almost any conversation about the Magic center with sports fans, interviewers or even basketball writers, the first or second question will be some version of: Has Howard replaced LeBron James as the NBA’s villain? Or: Hasn’t Howard dealt with this even worse than James handled The Decision?

And you can understand why. The situation has hit rock bottom at least a half-dozen times, culminating (for now) with Orlando’s announcement on Wednesday that trade talks with Brooklyn about Howard had stalled. They’re not dead, of course; they never will be until Howard is actually traded or signs a new contract with the Magic, the latter an outcome that still feels unthinkable given all that has happened.

But the Nets have shifted their attention to re-signing power forward Kris Humphries and center Brook Lopez, who agreed to a four-year, $61 million contract on Wednesday. Under league rules, those two would-be sign-and-trade cogs in the blown-up Howard deal will be off the trade market for months (Humphries isn’t likely to be trade-eligible until Dec. 15 and Lopez won’t be until Jan. 15). If Humphries receives a big-money, multiyear deal, it will be even harder for the capped-out Nets to find a taker for him in any theoretical Howard trade during the season.

This latest development adds another chapter to a saga that has included Orlando’s transparently bogus March 15 celebratory news conference in which Howard waived his early-termination option, talked of “loyalty” and thanked the Magic for supplying him with all of his “favorite candies”; the now-infamous Stan Van Gundy press huddle three weeks later in which the former Magic coach revealed that he knew, via his own high-level sources, that Howard had asked for his firing; and ESPN.com’s report earlier this month that Howard approached the players’ union over the summer and accused the Magic of “blackmailing” him into staying for 2012-13 (Howard denied using the term in an interview with Yahoo! Sports).

It is hard to imagine a more ridiculous parade of events. And it has all overshadowed the most important fundamental truth at the heart of this entire thing: Howard, 26, is a transformational force, by far the league’s best big man when healthy and one of just a few players who can single-handedly alter the balance of power in the league and guarantee solid postseason performances for his team when provided with even an “average” supporting cast. The guy is that good.

That’s why, despite all the nice things that have happened in Brooklyn over the last few days, and all the justifiable crowing from the team’s suddenly huge fan base, it’s hard to escape the idea that the Nets have missed a huge opportunity. As things stand now, they look like a capped-out scoring machine with a ceiling below the Heat’s and a lot to prove on defense, the end of the court where Eastern Conference rivals Miami, Chicago, Boston and Indiana rank among the elite and New York barged into that company last season.

That’s not a bad place to be, by the way. The Nets have done a nice job building a team that could well be the No. 2 seed in a conference where just about everyone is in some state of flux. Many teams would kill for that situation, and it matters that the Nets will be good upon opening their new building in New York. But when you spend like owner Mikhail Prokhorov is spending, and you spend that much on veteran talent, the goal is to contend for a title. And in failing — again, for now — to acquire Howard, the Nets have missed a chance to guarantee prolonged championship contention. That hurts.

If you listened to Orlando general manager Rob Hennigan’s news conference on Wednesday, it was clear he didn’t believe Brooklyn’s offer was enough to justify dealing that kind of foundational player — not with other suitors, including the Lakers and Rockets, at least in the conversation. The Rockets last week acquired a lottery pick with complicated protections from the Raptors in exchange for point guard Kyle Lowry, and you can’t help but wonder if the Nets would have sealed the deal for Howard had they been able to offer just one pick like that. Partially protected or unprotected lottery picks owned by teams almost guaranteed to be bad are hugely valuable assets. A Nets team with Howard was not going to be bad, and so it would have been able to offer only a bundle of picks likely to fall in the mid-20s, where the average return is something like Charlie Ward or Tony Allen. The Clippers had one of those golden picks, linked to Minnesota, and it helped them clinch (with help from the league) the Chris Paul trade last year.

The Nets dealt their 2012 lottery pick to the Trail Blazers for forward Gerald Wallace at the March 15 trade deadline, a move they made after Howard announced his plans to opt in instead of entering free agency and simply signing with Brooklyn this summer. It was the first of several moves Brooklyn made, including the recent trade for shooting guard Joe Johnson, to appease point guard Deron Williams and get his signature on a long-term deal. The Nets also sent Atlanta a lottery-protected first-round pick (from the Rockets) in the Johnson deal. The Magic, without Howard, are going to be bad and thus pick high in the draft, but they could manage that by losing the three-time Defensive Player of the Year in free agency. They wanted more in a trade: good picks, cap relief and other pieces that fuel a rebuild.

Lopez, a 24-year-old center with a wonderful offensive game, could be such a piece, but we simply won’t know if he’s really worth a max contract until he can prove consistently to be even average on the glass and on defense. He can be so-so at those things on a loaded Brooklyn team, but not as the maxed-out centerpiece of a rebuilding project.

The Nets scurried for the kind of assets that Orlando might want, and they came up short to this point. Yes, the Nets are net winners in the offseason, but there are degrees of winning, and the gap between fielding a surefire championship contender and a very nice top-four playoff seed is among the biggest in the sport.

The Nets will be in the Howard race, to some degree, as long as he wants to go there more than he wants to go anywhere else. He could have gone there as a free agent today, but there were candies and groundless blackmail allegations, and here we are.

Other suitors, both known and unknown, now re-enter the race. The Rockets have that Raptors pick, approximately 89 young players — some of whom are solid prospects — and enough cap space to absorb one or two of Orlando’s bad contracts in any Howard trade that also involves Houston shooting guard Kevin Martin’s expiring deal. The Lakers have center Andrew Bynum; he isn’t in Howard’s league as a defender, but he’s a much better rebounder than Lopez and a more threatening rim protector.

Maybe the Warriors, with a franchise big man in center Andrew Bogut and some interesting pieces, feel the gambling urge again. The Bulls have one of those lottery picks linked to a bad team (a pick with deescalating protections from the Bobcats, thanks to the Tyrus Thomas deal) and other intriguing assets, especially if they match Houston’s offer sheet for center Omer Asik. The Mavericks have newly acquired center Chris Kaman on an expiring deal, one tantalizing young player (guard Rodrigue Beaubois) and some cap flexibility. Dallas can also have near-max room to chase Howard as a free agent next summer — and if we actually get there, a whole new pile of candidates can throw their hats in the ring.

The Hawks are poised for a hometown pursuit, using the Atlanta native Howard’s good friend, forward Josh Smith, as a lure. The Hornets, Raptors, Sixers, Jazz, Bucks, Cavaliers, Bobcats and Kings (stop laughing!) are all set to have max-level cap room or at least approach it, and the Trail Blazers could get there with a few moves. Heck, the Clippers don’t have all that much salary committed for 2013-14 if Paul bolts.

None of those teams have any record of drawing (or even keeping) free agents, some are preposterous to even mention as potential Howard destinations and a few have fit issues. But he has to end up somewhere, and being flexible at least puts a team in the position to act as a facilitator in a Howard transaction.

Almost every team at least should be discussing ways to get him. That’s how good he is, despite all the issues with his back and his apparent problems accepting actual coaching from an actual coach.

But for now he stays in Orlando, and the insanity that was avoidable continues. The smart money remains on Howard’s being dealt before training camp, but it’s unclear how the Nets could enter that derby before January. It’s a loss for them, even amid a bunch of big wins.

  • Published On 7:58pm, Jul 11, 2012
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