As we sit in the middle of July with no labor agreement, no labor meetings scheduled and no real clue as to what the rules for franchise-building will be in the future, it seems pointless to speculate on the future of anything. We don’t know, for example, whether there will be a hard or soft cap or whether cap space will be tied into the Basketball Related Income or how BRI will even be defined.
But then you get to around to Dwight Howard — poised to be the next great player to hit free agency after next season — and one can’t help but speculate because he is as much a franchise cornerstone as LeBron James or any other superstar who was available last summer.
While critics point to Howard’s lack of refined post moves around the basket, it’s worth remembering that at age 25 he averaged 23 points a game while shooting 59 percent from the floor. He’s missed five games in seven years and is the three-time Defensive Player of the Year. So sure is his grip on that piece of hardware that every conversation on the topic is prefaced with, “Aside from Dwight Howard ...”
He’s also won six playoff series and reached the finals once despite not playing with an established All-Star (Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis were both picked in 2009). That’s more than, say, Kevin Garnett, was able to accomplish in a decade in Minnesota. There are simply no more dominant centers left besides Howard and while the game may change from era to era, acquiring the best big man in the world is always a goal for any team.
To become a free agent after next season, Howard will have to terminate the final year of his contract and he’s acknowledged that he will do so. He also said that he likes Orlando and wants to stay, provided the Magic upgrade their roster. Say what you will about that last part, but that’s a different tone than the one Carmelo Anthony was using last summer and it’s also different than LeBron, who never really gave off an indication of his plans one way or another.
The likelihood, as we sit here in mid-July with nothing better to do than to ponder a future that doesn’t even exist yet, is that Howard will stay in Orlando. There’s likely to be some kind of an incentive system like Bird rights for teams to have advantages in re-signing their own players.
Upgrading their roster will be difficult for the Magic after last season’s failed trades that brought in Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu. But the Magic have spent freely – if not always smartly – and tried to take advantage of their window of opportunity with Howard.
That said, there will be no shortage of teams wanting to get into the race. Here’s an early list of teams that could be in contention for Howard’s services, broken down into three categories: Big markets, cap space hoarders and wild cards. (Salary information comes via Sham Sports.)
Trade Potential: Zero
Cap Space: Between Amar’e Stoudemire and Anthony, the Knicks have about $40 million per season committed to their two stars through 2014. There’s also hardly anyone else left on the roster. They would have to get creative, and shy away from any long-term commitments in a hypothetical offseason. But there’s a way to make a max-type of offer, if such a thing exists in the new CBA.
Likelihood: New York comes complete with the bright lights and all the media attention you could ever want and Madison Square Garden. While that pitch didn’t entice James, the Knicks do have two stars already signed on for the task of becoming a Gotham version of the Super Friends.
Yet incorporating three frontcourt players with such disparate skill-sets and approaches to the game doesn’t really make any kind of sense in a basketball concept. This feels like a pipe dream. Chris Paul, on the other hand …
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Trade Potential: Oh hello, Andrew Bynum.
One of the few players that would make any kind of sense for the Magic in a trade has a history of knee problems and has played only 204 games in the last four seasons. Still, Bynum is younger than Howard and the salaries are enough of a match to get close to a deal. Bynum, however, is said to be untouchable.
Then there’s Pau Gasol, who also makes comparable money and is the offensive counterpoint to Howard. Just for fun, let’s put Lamar Odom and Steve Blake into the mix and maybe the Magic will throw in Arenas, as well. You can see where this is going. If there is a trade to be made, and Magic GM Otis Smith has stated that he will not make one, the Lakers would be an obvious partner.
Cap Space: The Lakers have $91 million committed to players for the 2012-13 season assuming they pick up Bynum’s option. It’s trade or bust.
Likelihood: It’s L.A. Everyone wants to go there. But then there’s the Shaquille O’Neal element. Shaq called on his long-time sparring partner to choose his own path (i.e. not follow his) and Howard basically said he wouldn’t. Whatever. It’s L.A. Everyone wants to go there.
THE CAP HOARDERS
Trade Potential: Minimal. The strongest chips Danny Ainge has are Rajon Rondo and the expiring contracts of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. That isn’t going to get it done.
Cap Space: Lots of it. By now most people know that the Celtics have around $30 million committed to three players after next season: Rondo, Paul Pierce and Avery Bradley. That number will inevitably rise depending on what Ainge does in free agency and more importantly what he does with his own free agents like Jeff Green and Glen Davis.
That also assumes that Kevin Garnett will either leave or retire at the end of his contract. Garnett has dropped hints that he is leaning that way, but speculation and reality aren’t always the same thing. Ainge has zealously protected that space and told WEEI’s Dennis & Callahan that it would take an extraordinary deal for him to part with it.
Here’s the pitch: Come play with a defensive-minded, pass-first point guard in Rondo and for coach Doc Rivers (a strong selling point, by the way), and you’ll be joining forces on one of the truly historic basketball teams as it transitions from one era to the next. Did we mention the 17 banners? Bill Russell? You might have heard we're building a statue for him.
And now the other side: The biggest names the Celtics have signed in free agency are Dominique Wilkins, Rasheed Wallace and the O’Neals. All of them came to Boston at the end of their careers.
There’s a lot of reasons for that, mainly circumstances that dictated the team was rarely in the hunt for big-time free agents. It’s also cold in Boston. And yes, there’s a perception that the city is not a desirable location for young black superstars although that has evolved over the years and Rivers plays a huge part in changing that perception. Mostly, though, it’s cold.
Likelihood: The cap space gives the Celtics a chance to sit down at the table. That’s all it is right now: A chance. Rondo and Rivers are an attractive pair for any free agent, but if Ainge could pull this off it would arguably be a bigger coup than landing Garnett.
Trade Potential: If you were desperate, would you trade Howard for Brook Lopez and a whole lot of players you don’t really want? No offense to Lopez, who at 23 years old is setting himself up to have a nice career, but Orlando would have to be really sure that Howard was leaving to pull the trigger.
Cap Space: The Nets have just about $38 million in salaries committed after 2012 including player-options for Deron Williams and Jordan Farmar. There’s presumably space to make a run.
Likelihood: Unlike most teams on this list, the Nets have two avenues to explore if they intend to pursuit Howard – and ESPN has reported that they will. But this is the Nets and they not only have to compete with the Knicks for NYC bragging rights, they also have to hope that their new Brooklyn arena gets built and that Williams decides that he’s in for the long-term. Unlike most of the teams on this list, this actually feels somewhat plausible. Maybe.
LOS ANGLES CLIPPERS
Trade Potential: Zero, unless you’re talking about Blake Griffin and he’s really the selling point.
Cap Space: Potentially more than the Celtics.
Likelihood: It’s not the Lakers but it is L.A., and Griffin and Eric Gordon have to look pretty enticing as running mates for Howard. However, the same scenario with different names has unfolded year after year with the Clippers.
Trade Potential: The only known deal floated for Howard involved Monta Ellis, Andris Biedrins and Epke Udoh. That obviously went nowhere. The intention, however, seems to be there.
Cap Space: Not much, but perhaps an amnesty clause could allow them to cut ties with Biedrinis and that would put them in the market at least.
Likelihood: Good for new owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber for thinking big, but this feels like a huge reach.
Trade Potential: The Rockets have nine players making between $1 million and 6 million and most of them are on their rookie contracts. They also have relatively affordable, very good players in Kevin Martin and Luis Scola. Still, it’s hard to see how any combination of Rockets is enough for Howard.
Cap Space: Not really, no, but they do have a number of team options on the aforementioned players on their rookie contracts.
Likelihood: Highly doubtful, but you can bet Darryl Morey will try.
Trade Potential: Not much, unless the Magic want to try win with Dirk Nowitzki’s supporting cast without Dirk Nowitzki.
Cap Space: Maybe. It depends on a couple of factors including a new contract for center Tyson Chandler and an amnesty provision for the likes of Brendan Haywood.
Likelihood: Dallas is an attractive destination and while everything is highly theoretical, Mark Cuban is obviously willing to get creative and can never be counted out. The Mavericks are the ultimate wild card in all of this.
There are also a large number of teams that could have ample cap space in 2012 including Charlotte, Cleveland, Denver and Phoenix to name four randomly. Howard can virtually have his pick of destinations, which is why the fretting in Orlando will increase and the speculation has only just begun.