As dawn breaks on the day before the NBA's trading deadline, the Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in an unfamiliar place. Today, for the first time all season, they could pick up the phone, offer the Orlando Magic Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard straight up, and after 30 seconds of silence (as a muted phone prevents them from hearing Otis Smith utter prayers of celebration), the deal will be done. It's the trade (some) Lakers fans have dreamed of all season long, the trade that we've analyzed nine different ways even as we've said there's no way it'll happen. Because there's no way it should happen. In terms of the ability and consistency of the two players, Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard remains as unfair a trade as it would have been at the start of the season.
Andrew Bynum's monster performance last night didn't change that. Drew was aggressive, powerful and dominant in throwing down 37 points and picking 16 boards, but one game doesn't change the whole dynamic of a trade like this. People know what Andrew Bynum is capable of. People know what Dwight Howard is capable of. None of what either player has done in recent weeks should come as a surprise to anyone. Nothing about these players, in relation to each other, has changed; what has changed is the playing field. Actually, changed is the wrong word. The playing field didn't change ... it came into focus.
If you weren't on Twitter last night, you might not know that Dwight Howard took some significant steps towards a LeBron-ian departure this offseason, and not just in the sense that another super-duper-megastar seems set to leave his team in free agency. Dwight Howard is now poised to be LeBron James 2.0, even in the asinine way in which he seems to be going out of his way to throw mud on his good name as he leaves town. Yesterday, Dwight Howard requested not to be traded, saying:
I told them that I want to finish this season out and give our team and our fans some hope for the future. I feel they have to roll their dice.
On the surface, that first part seems honorable enough. Dwight likes his team's chances, thinks the Magic are playing well, and wants to see out the string. But Dwight has clearly and purposefully remained non-committal towards his future in Orlando, and after a season filled with trade demands and limitations which cut the Orlando front office off at the knees, Howard has now cut them off at the neck.
Unless Orlando can rope somebody in to a trade for 6+ weeks of Howard's service, Dwight Howard will leave the Orlando Magic in free agency. Now, he's requested not to be traded because a) his destination of choice isn't very good right now and b) he wants that destination to keep all of their assets instead of wasting any on acquiring him. In terms of ensuring his own future success, you could portray this as a shrewd business move, but he has effectively squeezed out a Cleveland Steamer on Orlando's chest. If you thought LeBron's "Will He, Won't He" drama was bad, just wait for Dwight Howard's "Yes, He Will, He's Told You He Will, And There's Not A Damn Thing You Can Do About It" variation.
So why shouldn't the Lakers pull the trigger? Perhaps they could be the ones to "roll the dice" and try to convince Dwight to stay in the bright spotlight that is the Los Angeles Lakers. To do so would be a huge mistake. Andrew Bynum isn't the reason why. Nor, for that matter, is Dwight Howard. The reason why trading for Howard would be monumentally stupid right now is because Howard's actions have proven one thing, and one thing only: The restrictions on player movement, the ability of a player's current team to offer more money and more years on a contract, one of the primary reasons we're dealing with this lockout-shortened season in the first place, those restrictions are a joke. Think about this: Dwight Howard isn't resigned to utilizing free agency if he can't get what he wants out of a trade in mid-season ... He's actively seeking free agency out because he wants his future team to be in a better position than they would be by having to acquire him via trade. He wants to cost himself money, actively violating the first law of sports (athletes follow the money) in a more direct manner than LeBron ever did.
You might think this is somehow a noble enterprise for Howard, much in the same way the Big Three in Miami were "noble" in taking a bit less money to play together than they could have received individually on the open market. After all, we've heard all season about the "significant financial advantages" the Orlando Magic (or whichever team traded for Howard) would have in trying to retain his services. We've heard all season that the Magic can offer Dwight $28 million more than any other team, and that sounds like a lot of money. Hell, $28 million IS a lot of money. But Dwight isn't giving it up at all. One of the major "advantages" used to calculate that additional $28 million is that the Magic could offer Dwight a fifth year on any contract, and all other teams can only offer 4 years. So the Magic could give Dwight $109.2 million over five years, while the max for another team would be $81.1 million over four years.
Do you see the trick? It's the fifth year. That year doesn't disappear from time. Dwight Howard doesn't have to take a year off from basketball. Whatever is missing between what Howard could get from the Magic and what he will get from his destination of choice will simply get rolled into his next contract. As long as a guy is comfortable with his health (and Dwight has been an ironman of healthy consistency), and is young enough that his next contract will remain a max deal (Howard is) that extra year means NOTHING. So the only difference between a free agency deal and a deal with the home team is the difference in % salary increases. A new team can offer Howard only 4.5% raises year over year, whereas the Magic can offer him 7.5%.
That's the incentive to stay with your home team.3% annually. Over the life of a four year contract, using Howard's current salary as the base, it comes out to about 6 million dollars. That's what Howard "gives up" to leave town on his own terms. It's not nothing, but it's pretty damn close, and word on the street is that Adidas (Howard's primary endorsement deal) is willing to more than make up the difference because Howard would be more profitable in a major market.
That's why it makes no sense for the Lakers, or anybody, to trade for Dwight Howard so long as that trade is considered to be anything more than a rental. Dwight Howard is a professional (on the court at least). He plays hard no matter what, goes for his 20 and 15 nightly no matter what. I have no doubt he'll continue to do so for the rest of this season, no matter what uniform is on his back. But, when the offseason comes, Dwight Howard will go where-ever the hell he wants to, and the team that owns his Bird Rights is virtually guaranteed to come away with nothing at all.
The Lakers have the opportunity to trade for Dwight Howard, and lose nothing but Andrew Bynum in the process. It's the dream scenario many Lakers fans have pined for all season. Now, to do so, to pull the trigger on that deal, to roll the dice, would be monumentally stupid. This isn't about Andrew Bynum. This isn't even about Dwight Howard. It's about leverage, and teams trying to keep their star players have none. This is about the "main" purpose of the lockout continuing to be shown as an absolute sham, the idea of "helping small market teams keep their stars" being proven as a joke. The game's biggest players are going to stay where they are if they want to. They are going to leave and go somewhere else if they want to. There's nothing any team can do to stop it, not even the Los Angeles Lakers.