It’s usually hyperbole to suggest that a single transaction has a ripple effect throughout the league, but Friday’s four-team, 12-player deal sending Dwight Howard to the Lakers touches just about every franchise in some way. Just a few examples from outside the four directly involved here:
• The Nets, Mavericks, Rockets, Hawks and any other team gearing up to either deal for Howard after Jan. 15 (Brooklyn), trade for him now (Houston) or chase him in free agency next summer (Houston, Dallas, Atlanta) has suffered a major loss. Houston and Dallas are both free to pursue Howard in any way they’d like, but the Lakers aren’t dealing him ahead of free agency, and Los Angeles will have the same home-court advantage in free agency — the ability to offer the 26-year-old center an extra year and larger raises on his contract — that helped the Nets lock up Deron Williams.
• Chris Paul, a free agent in 2013, now has to think really hard about whether the Clippers have the goods as a franchise to justify his continuing presence after next season — even if the Lakers might have this insane four-man core of Howard, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash only through 2013-14. (Deals for the soon-to-be 34-year-old Bryant and 32-year-old Gasol expire after that season.)
• The Thunder have a new roadblock in their quest to become mainstays in the NBA Finals, and they have to prepare themselves to both match the Lakers’ size and embrace the kind of small-ball game — with Kevin Durant at power forward — that might be able to out-quick this L.A. team. They couldn’t play that style much in their second-round series against the Lakers, mostly because they had no wing other than Durant who could defend Metta World Peace down low.
• A team like Boston has to wonder now if it committed too much money to an aging team that just saw its title odds downgraded from “puncher’s chance” to “uh, oh, multiple players have to get hurt for us to win.” The Spurs, much closer to a title than Boston last season, have a smaller version of the same anxiety.
And on it goes. As for the four teams involved in the trade, here’s a look at the significance:
• LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Coming: Dwight Howard, Chris Duhon, Earl Clark (from Magic)
Going: Andrew Bynum (to 76ers); Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga, conditional first-round pick in 2017, conditional second-round pick in 2015 (to Magic)
The Lakers’ other splashy move this summer, the sign-and-trade for Nash, focused on upgrading an offense that proved inconsistent and played 3-on-5 at times because of a lack of outside shooting and off-the-dribble creativity. The Nash trade was a clear win, but raised two concerns:
1. How did L.A. plan to address its defense, which fell apart over the last 20 games of the regular season and in the playoffs?
2. How would all these pieces fit on offense? This question touched on everyone, but Bynum’s preference for a back-it-down, ball-stopping low-post game seemed an awkward fit with a point guard accustomed to speedy big men with pick-and-roll chops.
The Lakers have answered both of these questions, to some degree, with a single trade, provided Howard recovers well from back surgery. It’s a deal that gives them someone who was the league’s second-best overall player and my choice for MVP in 2010-11, when Howard – a mobile big man capable of disrupting a team’s offense from the three-point line to the rim — cemented his place as one of the greatest defensive players in league history.
The price in dollars will be enormous, one that mocks the collective bargaining agreement and the league’s bogus claim that it could engineer competitive balance on a grand scale. The Lakers’ payroll will push or exceed $100 million in each of the next two seasons (assuming a max extension for Howard), putting them nearly $30 million over the luxury-tax line that has terrified the big-market Bulls. When the harsher tax penalties kick in next season, the Lakers could be paying a tax bill of something like $50 million — on top of their payroll.
The books clear up in 2014-15, when only Nash and Howard would be under contract — assuming, again, that L.A. can re-sign Howard. That will allow the Lakers to duck the extra-harsh repeater penalties for teams that pay the tax four times in five years. So there’s that.
By dealing Bynum for Howard, the Lakers still have a giant front line at a time when the other two title favorites — Miami and Oklahoma City — thrive with smaller, quicker lineups. Defending those lineups will be an issue, but there comes a point where you have so much talent to throw at a problem that it ceases to be a problem. The Lakers are near that point, though they could use another wing player; Grant Hill, who signed with the Clippers, would have been perfect here. Other teams have to match up with them, too, and if things get really dicey, they can simply sit Gasol and survive with a Nash/Howard/Bryant trio.
I’m not sure the Lakers enter next season as the championship favorites, but they are close.
• PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
Coming: Andrew Bynum (from Lakers); Jason Richardson (from Magic)
Going: Andre Iguodala (to Nuggets); Nikola Vucevic, Moe Harkless, conditional first-round pick (to Magic)
The Sixers’ earlier moves don’t really make all that much sense in light of this big move. No team needs all four of Spencer Hawes, Lavoy Allen, Kwame Brown and Bynum. Elton Brand, recently amnestied, would have been better next to Bynum than any incumbent Philadelphia frontcourt player, save for perhaps Thaddeus Young.
But if you make the big move, it almost doesn’t matter. Bynum, 24, is a budding franchise centerpiece, the kind of player the Sixers were extremely unlikely to get via any other means. The 76ers relied on a top-three defense last season, a unit that will suffer with this trade. Iguodala might be the best perimeter defender in the league, and Bynum, despite his ability to protect the rim, has occasional effort issues in transition and (like most big men) struggles to guard in space above the foul line.
A great defense only gets you so far if you can’t score, though. Credit the Sixers for realizing that last year’s near trip to the Eastern Conference finals was an injury-aided fluke for a team that couldn’t score. Philadelphia now gets to build around a nucleus of Bynum, Young and guards Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner, and all the slashing Sixers stand to benefit from the double teams Bynum will draw in the post. The Sixers still need outside shooting in the long term (i.e., after the Nick Young and Dorell Wright contracts expire in 10 months) beyond the declining Richardson, especially if Turner can’t develop a reliable three-point shot, and there is some danger here that they are counting on players who might be slightly overrated as two-way forces. Holiday’s potential has divided the front office, and Bynum, for all of his post-up genius, needs to develop as a passer and defender to justify the max contract that Philadelphia would like to pay him.
Those concerns are real, but in jettisoning Iguodala, a future first-round pick (likely a low one) and their last two first-round picks (Harkless and Vucevic), it’s not as if the Sixers have broken up a juggernaut. And if Turner’s development goes sour, they could actually have a useful chunk of cap space in the summer of 2014. Regardless, the 76ers just dealt for the second-best center in the league, and they have plenty of good defenders left to keep the defense from slipping too much without Iguodala. A club that looked to be the most likely candidate among last season’s eight playoff teams in the East to fall into the lottery now appears like a safe postseason bet — a blow to Milwaukee, Toronto and anyone else pushing for the No. 8 seed (more ripple effects).
• DENVER NUGGETS
Coming: Andre Iguodala (from Sixers)
Going: Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, first-round pick in 2014, second-round pick in 2013 (to Magic)
Less than a month ago, I wrote that Denver was positioned to butt its way into any major trade, but I didn’t expect this. I suspect that finances were neck-and-neck with on-court potential in driving Denver to facilitate the creation of a temporary All-Star team in its own conference. Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri has told me that management wants to cap payroll about where it is now — $62 million, way below the tax — and with point guard Ty Lawson due a big extension, cutting the long-term money committed to Afflalo and Harrington ensures that Denver will have financial flexibility after Iguodala’s deal expires in 2014. Afflalo is owed nearly $8 million per season through 2015-16, and though he’s a nice player (and a Point Forward favorite), the Nuggets are right to believe that they can replace 90 percent of his production at cost.
Iguodala will prop up a defense that ranked 19th in points allowed per possession, well below the level at which you can take a team seriously as a real contender. The Nuggets will probably switch too much on defense as long as point guard Andre Miller is playing and George Karl is coaching, but if you’re going to do that, you might as well have an elite defender and a lot of similarly sized players. Denver now has both. Iguodala forms a small-forward army with Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, meaning he’ll likely have to defend shooting guards on most nights. He can handle that just fine. Gallinari and Chandler will both step into Harrington’s role as small-ball power forwards, and the presence of Kenneth Faried gives Denver an effective true power forward to play in traditional lineups.
The center rotation is still a huge question mark. But JaVale McGee should keep improving under one of the league’s best player development staffs, and Timofey Mozgov has looked good in the Olympics for Russia.
Bottom line: The Nuggets aren’t a title contender, but they know that, and they made themselves both better and financially leaner in this deal. They could push the slow-footed Lakers in the playoffs again, and they know this L.A. team might expire after only two seasons, at which point Denver could be one step behind Oklahoma City in the Western Conference.
• ORLANDO MAGIC
Coming: Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, first-round pick in 2014, second-round pick in 2013 (from Nuggets); Nikola Vucevic, Moe Harkless, conditional first-round pick (from 76ers); Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga, conditional first-round pick in 2017, conditional second-round pick in 2015 (from Lakers)
Going: Dwight Howard, Chris Duhon, Earl Clark (to Lakers); Jason Richardson (to 76ers)
In a Howard trade, Houston could have offered several young players on rookie contracts and draft picks (including a near-certain lottery pick from the Raptors) while absorbing Richardson’s deal and likely Duhon’s or Quentin Richardson’s. That is a better return than what Orlando got here, which leads me to believe that something about the Rockets’ offer has been overstated — the availability of that precise package; Orlando’s patience in waiting for Houston’s recently signed picks to become trade-eligible (about a month away); Orlando’s affection for Houston’s first- and second-year players; or Houston’s willingness to gamble on Howard without assurances that he would stay beyond next season. I’m confident that the Rockets’ willingness was real, and that they were open to taking on at least the Richardson/Duhon deals, so I’m not sure why the Magic accepted this trade over Houston’s package.
I’m also not sure why the Magic didn’t just pursue a straight Howard/Bynum trade more seriously, since the Lakers effectively made that exact deal on their end. Yes, Bynum’s long-term commitment is nearly as tenuous as Howard’s, and this four-team monstrosity allowed the Magic to rope in extra draft picks that the Lakers couldn’t offer after dealing two first-rounders to Phoenix for Nash. But the picks that Orlando received are all going to be sub-lottery, and even the highest picks in that range (say, No. 15 or 16) have an expected return roughly equivalent to Terry Mills or Kelvin Cato, according to the best long-term draft value studies in the public domain.
Acquiring Bynum, however, would have made the 2012-13 Magic good enough to fall into the low end of the lottery or even push for the No. 8 playoff seed, making it difficult for Orlando to bottom out and pursue the “Thunder model.” The Magic are going to be bad now, guaranteeing them at least one monster lottery pick and probably two.
Good luck with that Thunder model, by the way. It involves winning the lottery or finishing second in a year with a franchise centerpiece, getting lucky enough to have that player fall to you and somehow still being bad enough over the next two seasons to snag two more top-four picks in the draft. That is nearly unprecedented. Toss in the selection of a borderline future All-Star at No. 24 (Serge Ibaka), and, bam, you’ve got the Thunder model! As easy as cooking a nice pasta dinner.
You know who’s a young All-Star right now? Twenty-four-year-old Andrew Bynum! And if he walks after next season, the Magic would just bottom out a year later and have actual cap space to use along with their own high pick.
Afflalo and Harrington make about $15 million combined over the next three seasons, though Harrington’s deal is only half guaranteed in the last two of those seasons. Still, they make enough that the Magic will have little meaningful cap room next summer unless they buy out Harrington and forward Hedo Turkoglu for only the nonguaranteed portions of their contracts. Center Brook Lopez is set to earn only about $4 million more per season than the Afflalo/Harrington combination in 2013-14 and 2014-15, making it fair to wonder why the Magic passed on Brooklyn’s offer of Lopez and a pile of similarly crummy first-round picks.
Perhaps the Magic thought that Lopez, like Bynum, would make them too good for the top of the draft over the next couple of seasons. I’m unconvinced, given Lopez’ track record as a poor defender and rebounder on terrible teams.
The Magic also save enough in 2012-13 salary in this trade to take them from a tad over the tax to comfortably under it. Finding that much savings would have been difficult in a deal that included the acquisition of both Lopez and Kris Humphries, so that’s a small victory.
Again, we don’t know how concrete any of these offers were, and there have been rumblings around the league that Orlando’s non-basketball people — i.e., CEO Alex Martins — have taken control of the Howard talks away from new general manager Rob Hennigan (and Otis Smith before him). But this deal stinks for the Magic. It’s great for the Lakers, though. Some things never change.