Mavs’ position in Dwight Howard derby

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Dwight Howard

Dwight Howard’s threat to leave for Dallas in free agency next summer is not as simple an option as the disgruntled Magic star seemingly believes. (AP)

Dwight Howard met with Orlando Magic officials on Wednesday in Los Angeles and reiterated his desire to be traded as soon as possible. He added that if the Magic keep him or deal him anywhere but Brooklyn or the Lakers, he will simply sign with Dallas as a free agent, according to’s Chris Mannix, Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, Jarrod Rudolph of RealGM and several others.

And then the world yawned, or vomited, or did whatever it does now when a “new” tidbit of Dwight Howard “news” trickles out. The story has been endless and ridiculous, and endlessly ridiculous, and Wednesday’s meeting fits nicely within that theme. Howard expressed his frustration over Orlando’s failure to deal him by now to the Lakers or the Nets, teams that have since used up cap space (Brooklyn) and useful trade assets (the Lakers) in moving on from the Howard drama without actually moving on. Both teams are still in the running for Howard if they wish to be, and if the Magic wish them to be; the Lakers still have center Andrew Bynum, and the Nets can trade center Brook Lopez as of Jan. 15, along with power forward Kris Humphries, who is overpaid on a short-term deal (two years, $24 million) precisely so that he is not too unpalatable in a trade package.

According to Rudolph, Howard is also upset with Orlando’s lack of a clear rebuilding plan:

Howard, however, was expecting an outline of how the team planned to improve and get back to a championship-contending level, something he didn’t receive during the hour-long meeting, according to sources.

This is where the story gets laughable again. Howard opted in, at his choice and clear financial benefit, to a team with no cap flexibility this summer and no game-changing trade assets other than himself. The lack of flexibility is at the foot of Otis Smith, the team’s departed general manager, and an ownership group that signed off on cap-killing trades (Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu) and toxic mid-sized contracts to players whose production hasn’t met those deals — including at least one player, Glen Davis, reportedly acquired at Howard’s request. The Magic have no space to pursue free agents, and if Howard believes that the team’s new (and well-regarded) GM, Rob Hennigan, can just pick up the phone and spin these other pieces into championship-level help, perhaps he needs a summer internship in the front office to see how the NBA actually works.

One point I’ve heard from some Orlando critics in the last few weeks: Why couldn’t the Magic turn power forward Ryan Anderson — who was signed-and-traded to New Orleans in a lopsided deal for the cheap Gustavo Ayon — into the kind of massive trade exception that the Lakers used to acquire Steve Nash? The answer, as outlined here by the always-reliable Mark Deeks of Sham Sports, is simple and complicated at once: The rules don’t allow for it in this case. Anderson will make about $8.6 million next season under his new deal, or $7 million more than Ayon, making it appear as if the Magic could net a huge $7 million trade exception out of a transaction like this.

Unfortunately, the byzantine cap rules (as always) intervene. The Magic are over the cap and used Larry Bird Rights to re-sign their own free agent (Anderson) to a deal that gives him more than a 20 percent raise. In those somewhat rare cases, the old base-year compensation rules apply, so that Anderson’s outgoing salary for trade purposes is only 50 percent of his new salary — or $4.35 million. The Magic indeed created a trade exception in the Anderson/Ayon deal, but only for that amount — not a large enough figure to lure a real star on Nash’s level.

Those damned rules — always getting in the way. Speaking of which, here’s the always plugged-in Wojnarowski on the looming threat of the Mavs — once a team on Howard’s ever-fluctuating trade destination wish list:

While the Lakers and Nets won’t have the salary cap space to sign Howard, nor the opportunity to execute a sign-and-trade deal under new CBA rules, the Mavericks will be flush with cap space next summer. Mavs owner Mark Cuban plans to make a run at Howard, and potentially another star player, to join Dirk Nowitzki.

There has been a puzzling tendency around the NBA over the last 24 months to exaggerate the Mavericks’ cap space. It infected the discussion of Dallas’ grand plans to sign both Howard and point guard Deron Williams, even though the math most generous to the Mavs showed that they couldn’t have carved out nearly enough cap space this summer to actually pay max deals to both players.

As things stand now — and things are always subject to change — the Mavs should be able to barely squeeze in a max deal to Howard, who will be eligible for a starting salary on his next contract of $20.5 million. But the math is tight, and the idea that the Mavs could chase a second potential star in free agency is currently fanciful.

To wit: The Mavs, as of this moment, have $34.2 million in guaranteed money for the 2013-14 season committed to four players: Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter and first-round pick Jared Cunningham. There has been mass confusion about the status of Carter’s deal, but according to Deeks and other sources, $2 million of the veteran shooting guard’s $3.18 million deal for 2013-14 became guaranteed when the Mavs did not waive him on June 30; that amount has been factored into the $34.2 million figure above, as has the customary 120 percent rookie scale figure for Cunningham.

But the rules — those rules again! — say the Mavs must account for eight empty roster spots, up to 12, by adding eight rookie minimum salary charges at $490,180 a pop. Toss those in, and you’re up to $38.1 million. Even assuming a very nice 5 percent bump up in the cap level from $58 million to $60 million, the Mavs would have about $21.9 million in cap space — just enough to fit Howard’s $20.5 million max salary, but not enough to upgrade the roster in any other meaningful way.

The Mavs could trim about $1 million off that figure by using the stretch provision on Carter’s deal, but this $38.1 million amount doesn’t account for a number of other potential charges: cap holds linked to a pile of outgoing free agents, including point guard Darren Collison, a useful young player, and just about everyone Dallas acquired this summer; a cap hold linked to guard Roddy Beaubois, once thought to be a core piece of the Mavs’ future but now sort of on the outs there; shooting guard O.J. Mayo’s player option, which he may well decline; a team option on shooting guard Dominique Jones; any money for second-round picks Jae Crowder and Bernard James; and the possibility that Dallas might keep and use its own first-round pick in next year’s draft.

Again: All of this is workable for one of the league’s brainiest front office regimes. The Mavs can renounce all their free agents, sign Crowder and James to non-guaranteed deals for 2013-14 (and simply cut them), trade Marion’s expiring deal ($9.066 million with and early-termination option at Marion’s choice) between now and next season’s trade deadline (a real potential game-changer) and pull lots of other simple moves to open up Howard-size cap space. Dallas will have the sign-and-trade route, a path Brooklyn and the Lakers will not be able to use next summer, since those two teams will be at or above the payroll level where the new collective bargaining agreement prohibits teams from entering into sign-and-trades.

So it’s fine for Howard to use the Mavs as a threat, and for all of us to place Dallas as the three-time Defensive Player of the Year’s theoretical free agency front-runner. But let’s not go overboard in detailing Dallas’ potential cap space, or forget that the Mavs will have to somehow field a full roster around the Nowitzki/Howard pairing if they do pull it off. Howard is worth these machinations, but they are tricky.

  • Published On 11:22am, Jul 26, 2012
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