USA TODAY Sports
Last year, the variables involved with trading Dwight Howard were very simple. He had only one preferred destination and was willing to leave in free agency if he ended up anywhere else. This year, things are more complicated.
Last year, at the trade deadline and then again in the summer, it was made clear that the Orlando Magic were ready to trade Dwight Howard and move on from the Dwightmare once and for all. They shopped him around to find out what was available, only to find no worthy takers. Nobody wanted to trade a collection of decent assets for the game's premier center and the most dominant defensive player in 20 years. Why? Because Dwight Howard held all the cards.
Dwight made clear what his preferred destination was. He made clear that he would not sign a long term extension with whoever traded him (not just because he wasn't willing to commit, mind you. Letting your contract expire before signing a new one with the same team is how a "max contract" free agent gets the most favorable financial terms). And he made clear that he would be willing to forego the extra year and additional funds available to which ever team traded for him in signing his next contract, if he didn't feel like that situation was ideal for his chances of winning championships. In short, Dwight said "Send me to Brooklyn. If you don't send me to Brooklyn, I will probably leave whereever you do send me in free agency." Teams interested in Dwight had only one bit of leverage, the extra year on a new contract. Dwight was communicating that the extra year wasn't important, and nobody was willing to call his bluff. Nobody except the Lakers.
Once time ran out on negotiations to send Dwight to his preferred New York borough, the market for Dwight became so dire that the Lakers were able to trade him straight up for a lesser player with a more significant (or so we thought) injury history. In a shocking four team trade, every team involved traded up except Orlando, who got a return for one of the 5 best players in the game that made the infamous Pau Gasol trade look fair and balanced. Such was the belief, throughout the league, that Dwight Howard would make good on his promise and leave a fifth year on the table, that nobody but the Lakers were willing to step up to the plate, even for a pennies on the dollar trade.
One year later, Dwight finds himself in the same situation in Los Angeles, where things have fallen apart before they were even put together. It would appear that the Los Angeles Lakers are willing to part with Dwight Howard if the price is right. But what hope can the Lakers have of finding the right price when, just 8 months ago, they were the ones taking advantage of a buyer's market in which nobody else was willing to pay up? How could the Lakers make a trade for Howard that would be worthwhile after he's had the worst season of his career? The possible answer to both of these questions lies in the changing circumstances of Dwight Howard's career. Put simply, Dwight Howard would now be an absolute fool to walk away from a five year contract.
In the vast majority of free agent situations, the fifth year is the biggest canard in the NBA. Every time I hear somebody say "[Free Agent X] isn't going to turn down an extra $30 million dollars", I want to slap them across the face. The free agent isn't turning down an extra $30 million dollars. They are turning down the right to lock in to the $30 million dollars right now. Comparing a four year deal (that a player could sign with any team) against a five year deal (which can only be signed with the team that owns the player's "Bird" rights) on a strict dollar for dollar basis is completely ignorant. If a free agent chooses a four year deal over a five year deal, that fifth year doesn't magically disappear from his career. Instead, it will just be a part of his next contract. The players for whom this matters are usually the young and elite NBA stars, and the likelihood with a player of that magnitude is that their next contract will be just as lucrative as their current one. Max contract players don't become non-max contract players until well past 30. Assuming good health, that is.
Assuming good health. Those three words are what has flipped the Dwight Howard situation on its head. Dwight has not been in good health this season. I'm not even sure he qualifies as in mediocre health. Even before the torn labrum he picked up midseason, Dwight has been an absolute shell of his former self. He doesn't run the same way. He doesn't move the same way. He sure as hell doesn't jump the same way. Without the other worldly athleticism, we have found out time and time again that Dwight Howard just isn't that good. He doesn't have the skill to maneuver in the post when he can't just blow by his defender. He doesn't have the mentality to get rebounds by outworking people instead of out-jumping them. Even with these limitations, Dwight Howard is still a very good player. He deserved to be an All-Star (though just barely). But I don't think there's any doubt that the current version of Dwight Howard, the one that we've seen in a Lakers uniform, is not worthy of a max contract, or a fifth year.
Here is where the questions start, and they do not stop: Is Dwight Howard's performance this season more a result of his body not performing like he is used to, or does it have more to do with a tumultuous and unhappy situation in the Lakers locker room? Are the physical limitations going to go away as Howard continues to recover from last season's back surgery, or will he never fully re-capture the elite athleticism that let him do the amazing things he did over his first eight years in the league? How much can he re-capture? 95%? 90%? 80%? At what percentage of old Dwight does current Dwight stop being an elite player? And what is the possibility that Dwight will re-injure his back in the next five years, or injure something else compensating for it?
Some of the answers to these questions, like how much of Dwight's (relatively) lackluster performance is due to his injury and how much is due to his effort, are known only to Dwight. The rest are known only to God. Due to all these questions, because of all these unknowns, because of the increase in variables surrounding Dwight Howard's next contract, there may now be more of a trade market for Dwight Howard than there was 8 months ago. After all, if I were a GM of any team in the league, I would be significantly more confident that Dwight Howard might be willing to re-sign a five year contract with my team if I traded for him. Then again, if I were a GM, I'd have to consider an altogether different question that would have been ridiculous a year ago.
Would I want to?