While the NBA drifts off toward the ether one of the most important storylines of the season that may never be received a kickstart when Dwight Howard sat down with Esquire’s Scott Raab.
Howard, as you may have heard, can be a free agent after this season (if there is a season and if he doesn’t exercise his player option). Here are the quotes that got the NBA talking about basketball for a few hours on Monday:
There's more you can do in a bigger place. I'm stuck in a tough position because I feel like right now, where I'm at, I've done so much. And I just don't know what else I can do. I can't live for everybody else. I don't know what decision I'm gonna make as of right now. It's been crazy. Everybody wants me to come here, come play here, come to our team, do this. It's a great feeling, though, to be wanted. Ã¢ÂÂ¨
Stan's a great guy away from basketball. He's passionate. He loves the game. I have no problem with him off the court. The only thing I had a real problem with was the way he coached.
Uh-oh. Howard helpfully added that he wouldn’t a primetime TV special to announce a decision, but his impending free agency will be the biggest off -court drama next season, assuming there is one.
We already outlined the possible scenarios for Howard and it must be said that a new collective bargaining agreement will play a large role in how this shakes out.
There have been reports of amnesty clauses that would allow the Magic to get out from Gilbert Arenas’ onerous contract, as well as rules barring the kind of trade that led Carmelo Anthony out of Denver and allowed his new team to use Bird rights on a player who was with them for less than half a season. There may also be new incentives to give the Magic greater powers to retain Howard.
But the possibility of Howard altering the fortunes of a half-dozen franchises is too great to ignore, especially when one of those franchises is here in Boston. As it stands the Celtics will have only a handful of players under contract after next season and should in theory have a ton of cap space.
Danny Ainge said on WEEI just before the lockout that he doesn’t want to touch that cap space and with money to spend, the Celtics can’t be ignored in the inevitable Howard sweepstakes. To do so, however, will require a historic shift in their free-agent fortunes.
Unlike baseball where the Red Sox operate as an uber-rich major market with money to burn, or football where the Patriots operate in a much more transient system and can sell the Belichick/Brady package, the Celtics are not seen as a major destination for free agent basketball players.
They’ve not only made few strikes in free agency, they’ve rarely done it well. Consider some of the free agents they have signed over the years.
- Old guys looking for a ring: Rasheed Wallace, Jermaine O’Neal, Shaquille O’Neal
- Undervalued role players: James Posey, Eddie House, Delonte West
- The Pitino follies: Travis Knight, Bruce Bowen, Andrew DeClerq, Tony Massenburg, Chris Mills, Tyus Edney, Calbert Cheaney, Mark Blount, Randy Brown
- Never in service: Pervis Ellison
- The big names: Xavier McDaniel, Dominique Wilkins, Dana Barros
You can argue that Ainge’s recent big men adventures with the O’Neal’s and Rasheed Wallace were bigger names than the above, but they arrived under different circumstances. All three were on their last contracts and signed for some sort of exception, either the mid-level or the veteran minimum. They were not as such, franchise-defining moves.
The X-Man was signed to provide a sidekick to Reggie Lewis the summer after Larry Bird retired and Kevin McHale moved back to a sixth-man role. But Lewis died, McHale retired and the Celtics started down their long spiral to mediocrity.
‘Nique was signed after the Hawks traded him to the Clippers for Danny Manning at midseason and he still had enough cache to be on the so-called Dream Team II that competed for the United States in the 1994 World Championships. Unfortunately his days as an elite scorer were over and he went to Greece before returning to the NBA in San Antonio where he played a minor role in the epic quest for ping pong balls in the Tim Duncan lottery.
It didn’t go well, in other words.
Then there’s Barros, arguably their best free agent signing. A 28-year-old shooter coming off an All-Star season with Philadelphia, Barros was solid in four of his five seasons – he was injured in the other – and while he wasn’t getting 40 minutes a night as he did in Philly, he was one of the lone bright spots in otherwise dreary Celtics seasons.
It helped that Barros was also a native of Massachusetts and a former Boston College star who has remained with the franchise for years after his retirement. (He could probably still hit 40 percent from 3 if given the chance).
There are many reasons for the Celtics inability to make a big strike in free agency. Part of it is geography. Boston is a cold, tough East Coast city without the media benefits of New York. It’s just not as enviable a destination as say Los Angeles, Miami or Dallas.
Save for a few glory years of the Paul Pierce/Antoine Walker partnership, they were also constantly rebuilding on the fly and weren’t in the cap or franchise position to make a move in free agency.
Finally, like it or not, part of it is the city’s reputation for being inhospitable to young black stars. They can’t do anything about the weather, but the modern Celtics have done an admirable job through their community outreach programs to make the team a viable entity throughout the city. The decision to build a statue honoring Bill Russell will also bring a needed bit of closure to a decades-long oversight.
Once the big three era ends, the Celtics have a chance to start a new day and they have two prized assets in addition to cold, hard cash: Doc Rivers and Rajon Rondo.
There has been loose talk about Howard teaming up with another great player like Deron Williams or Chris Paul in a new location. Rondo is not a perfect player and he took a step back from the top point guard pantheon last season, but his skills are an obvious draw and his quirky, yet undeniable charisma offers an intriguing mix.
Then there is Rivers who is signed for the long-term and offers the kind of coaching stability that is simply not in other markets. Rivers and Van Gundy are probably more alike than similar in that they are no-nonsense coaches who hold their players accountable, but Rivers is less emotive, at least in public. He’s not a player’s coach in the traditional meaning of the term, but he is certainly attuned to his star’s personalities.
That’s the Celtics pitch. We have the money. We’ll offer you a chance to play with at least one more All-Star, if not two, and for one of the top coaches in the game who’s not going anywhere.
It’s entirely possible that the Magic could make the decision to trade Howard before he gets away to the Lakers or Bulls, to name two. It’s also possible that Howard would rather be someplace warm, less hectic and without a state income tax, all things considered.
But the Celtics can’t be ignored in the Howard sweepstakes, even if it takes rewriting their own history.