Dwight Howard isn't going to walk away from an extra $30 million dollars.
Some idiot ... or some genius
There are few things that frustrate me more than the above quote as it pertains to free agency in the NBA. It is the biggest canard in sports, the idea that the "home" team (i.e. the team that owns a player's Bird rights) in any free agency situation has a HUGE advantage in obtaining the signature of a franchise free agent. Dwight Howard's involvement in the quote is immaterial; somebody, somewhere, will make the same argument about Chris Paul. It's the same argument people made about LeBron James, and the argument will get dusted off any time a free agent becomes available who is worth more than the maximum contract they are allowed to sign under the rules of the NBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement. There's just one problem ... under normal circumstances, the argument is absolute bullshit.
If Dwight Howard decides to walk away from the Los Angeles Lakers this off-season, he will not be walking away from $30 million dollars. Yes, the Lakers can offer Dwight Howard a contract worth $119 million dollars. Every other team in the league can only offer Dwight Howard a contract worth $87 million dollars. So yes, if Dwight Howard walks away from the Lakers, his contract will be $31.4 million less than it could have been. But, the calculation of this net figure which makes it seem like the home team in free agency has such a compelling advantage is based on the length of the contract. The home team in free agency is allowed to offer a player a fifth year on his contract, and the rest of the league can only offer a four year deal. A whole extra year in a max deal is worth a whole lot of money (especially since the year in question is the last year). So what's the problem? Why is the statement above about leaving $30 million on the table so terribly misinformed?
Because that extra year doesn't just go away if a player signs somewhere else. The player doesn't die. He isn't forced to take a year off. That's what makes the $30 million number so ridiculous. The player does not lose $30 million, the player simply has to enter free agency again one year earlier than he otherwise would have if he stayed with the same team. And it just so happens that franchise players tend to stay franchise players, which means that, under most circumstances, the player's next free agent deal is likely to be a new max contract. Add in the first year of the player's new deal, and that $30 million number disappears. If you have a choice between two grocery stores, and you need dog food that one of the stores doesn't have, do you save $20 by not shopping at the store that has the dog food? Not unless you plan on starving your dog.
No, the real difference between the deal that Howard could obtain from the Lakers versus what he could get from any other team with the cap space to offer him a max contract is based entirely off of the difference in allowable raises in per year income. A "Bird rights" contract can include yearly raises of 7.5%; all other contracts are limited to yearly raises of 4.5%. The interest gets compounded over the course of the contract, so over the course of a deal, the difference is about $6.8 million. That's not nothing, but it isn't very much in comparison to the large dollar amounts being thrown around with these contracts in general. For those of you averse to "the maths", here's a handy little table that breaks down the comparison.
|Bird Rights||Salary||Raise %||Raise Total||Non-Bird||Salary||Raise %||Raise Total|
|Year 1||20,513,178||7.5||1,538,488||Year 1||20,513,178||4.5||923,093|
|Year 2||22,051,666||7.5||1,653,875||Year 2||21,436,271||4.5||964,632|
|Year 3||23,705,541||7.5||1,777,916||Year 3||22,400,903||4.5||1,008,041|
|Year 4||25,483,457||7.5||1,911,259||Year 4||23,408,944|
|Year 5||27,394,716||Year 5||24,579,391*|
*Assumes player receives new max deal, worth 105% of his previous year's salary.
I'm not a multi-millionaire star athlete, but if I already stood to make $110 million dollars over the next five years, I wouldn't let a scant $7 million stand in my way of choosing to play where I wanted to without considering the money. Under normal circumstances, the additional funds Los Angeles are able to offer Dwight Howard should not be their primary selling point.
Then again, Dwight Howard may not be operating under normal circumstances. Dwight is just a year removed from major back surgery, and he spent much of the season operating as a shell of his previous physical dominance. By year's end, he looked much, much better, but even end-of-season Dwight was not the three time Defensive Player Of The Year monster we thought we would have. Dwight had, statistically, his worst season since his rookie campaign. His PER didn't crack 20. He failed to manage his career average in rebounding % in every month except March (and he followed March with a dismal April which featured his worst rebounding % of the season, albeit with small sample size). On the whole, the Dwight Howard of 2012-2013 does not merit a max contract. The Dwight Howard of 2013 was not a franchise player. And nobody, except possibly Dwight himself, knows whether the Dwight Howard of 2014 will be more like the 2013 version or an earlier vintage.
It seems clear to me that Howard was never 100% last year, even at the very end. That he never fully recovered from back surgery, even after more than a year, is not indicative that he never could, but it is a mild concern. The concern is exacerbated by the fact that Dwight relies on his athleticism far more than he does anything else. We're not talking about Tim Duncan here. Dwight Howard is ... not particularly skilled, especially on the offensive end of the ball. So, if he never recovers 100% of his previous athleticism, every little bit lost will cost him double. Howard may be much better next year than he was for most of this past season, but he may also never be the same dominant force that made his impending free agency as important as LeBron's. We won't know for sure until that future arrives, no matter what uniform Dwight decides he wants to wear.
Of course, what we know and don't know doesn't matter very much. What Dwight Howard knows, or doesn't know, is what is important. If Dwight has absolute confidence that his recovery is proceeding according to plan, that there will be no ill effects on his game by the time next season rolls around, then the myth of the fifth year won't have much of an impact on his free agency decision. If, however, he is uncertain about just how much of his game he will be able to recover, or worse, he knows that he'll never be the same player he once was, then that fifth year becomes mighty important. Right now, Dwight Howard is considered a franchise player on reputation alone. The next time he hits free agency, he will be either 31 or 32 years old, and his reputation as a player will have been re-written many times over. If Dwight has concerns that he might not be considered a franchise player in 4 years, then the five year contract might be too good for him to pass up, because he really will be walking away from $30 million dollars by not taking it.
Therein lies the problem for the Lakers. From the outside looking in, it would appear that Dwight didn't particularly enjoy his year in Los Angeles. Between the frustrations of his and the team's performances, the perceived friction between him and certain teammates and coaches, and the magnifying glass that is the LA sports media, it's easy to come to the conclusion that he might be happier elsewhere. Of course, there are plenty of great reasons why he'd want to stay in purple and gold: LA remains a cultural and environmental treasure compared to Dwight's other options, and the Lakers have a rich history and commitment to winning at all costs that should appeal to any superstar. The Lakers will be dominant again at some point in time, whether Dwight Howard is involved or not. That kind of confidence in a franchise's commitment could be worth its weight in gold. The Lakers will offer Dwight a max deal, because he has shown enough to make us believe that he could be a player worthy of that contract. But make no mistake, there is risk for the Lakers in offering Dwight such a deal. If, at some point last season, Dwight reached the peak of what he will be in the future, then his contract will be a significant anchor by the time a 4th or 5th year rolls around.
Dwight Howard should do what is best for Dwight Howard. That might be signing in Houston, where the team looks more ready to compete immediately and the spotlight shines a little less brightly. That might be going home to Atlanta. Or it may mean staying put, because you really can't live in a nicer place than Southern California, and the Lakers offer Dwight a chance at the kind of legacy you can't get anywhere else. Or, it may mean taking the money grab, signing the most lucrative contract he possibly can, because he knows or suspects that he may not have the option to do so the next time his contract comes up for negotiation. Two of those options end up with Dwight back on the Lakers for the next five years, but only one of those options is desired.
It is for that reason that the possibility of Dwight Howard leaving Los Angeles in free agency elicits no response from me besides a shrug of the shoulders. Dwight leaving would be a blow, but one from which the Lakers could very quickly recover with gobs of cap space in 2014 and (probably) a high draft pick in next year's lottery. That is hardly the worst case scenario.
The best possible outcome for the Lakers is for Dwight Howard to re-sign with the team. The worst possible outcome for the Lakers is for Dwight Howard to re-sign with the team. Should Howard remain a Laker, only he will know which situation is which for a long time to come.