By Joe Manganiello
Well, it’s finally over. Dwight Howard appears to have made a decision that will keep him on the same team for consecutive seasons – the NBA’s best and most polarizing big man announced Friday that he is signing in Houston for 4 years and $88 million – after playing for two teams in two seasons. With the off-season’s largest free agent off the market, triggering a sequence of moves, here’s a look over the team’s most directly affected.
I wrote about the Hawks off-season plans at-large last week, and correctly predicted they’d lose out on the Dwight sweepstakes. Although the Eastern Conference would provide a more favorable path to the NBA finals for a Howard-led team, and Atlanta having plenty of money to unite Howard with long-time Hawk Josh Smith, I had a feeling Howard wasn’t going to sign with a team where he would be the only elite player in the long-term plans. That intuition was reenforced when the juiciest rumors in the days leading up to Friday’s decision were out of Golden State (Stephen Curry) and Houston (James Harden), and not out of Atlanta, Dallas or even Los Angeles.
What happens next:
Within 24 hours of missing out on Howard, the Hawks lost Josh Smith to the Pistons. Detroit is giving Smith about $54 million to be its best player since Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups in their primes, and to help lead a nucleus of Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Brandon Knight to the playoffs. Contextually, the move is great for Detroit. I don’t think the Pistons will ever be a big enough franchise to compete for free agents in a tier above Smith, and with that said, the Pistons were only a Josh Smith away from being a playoff team. It’s a win for them to have a player of his caliber on board.
Atlanta, on the other hand, doesn’t need to give Josh Smith $54 million. Not when they already have Al Horford on roster earning every penny of his $48 million contract. The thing about Smith is that he will never be the best player on a championship contender. It’s not his destiny. If it was, he’d stop taking 2.5 three-pointers per game on 30 percent shooting. Smith is the No. 2 piece on a really good team or the No. 3 piece on a great team, but his refusal to take a backseat to Horford, the better player in Atlanta, made it impossible for the Hawks to evolve with him on roster.
The Hawks have made two surprising moves this week: (1) they inked Kyle Korver to a four year, $24 million deal when Korver was being recruited by every contender with money in their wallet and (2) as soon Howard signed in Houston, they grabbed Paul Millsap for two years, $19 million. I’m not sure which signing is more improbable, convincing Korver not to take a little less money to play for a championship contender in Brooklyn or giving Millsap half the years and half the money Al Jefferson and Josh Smith are commanding on the same market.
On the latter of the two moves, I don’t think anyone said it better than Ben Golliver. Millsap might be better than Smith, and for Atlanta GM Danny Ferry to bring a potential Eastern Conference all-star for just $9.5 million the next two seasons is a slam-dunk signing. With about $17 million left on their payroll, the Hawks have Horford, Millsap and Korver, and plenty of space to bring back point guard Jeff Teague. In a 24-hour span, the Hawks went from potentially falling into the lottery to remaining a sturdy playoff team in the East.
Los Angeles Lakers:
Whether or not D12 stayed in La-La Land, the Lakers are already locked into next season financially. Kobe Bryant, who has indicated he is not retiring, has one year left at $30 million; Pau Gasol has one more year at $19.3 million; and Nash, who also does not plan to retire, will make $9 million each of the next two seasons. The Lakers are spending a whopping $58 million (ironically, the same amount as the league’s salary cap) on just three players. With Kobe both theoretically and practically untradeable, and Nash incredibly close to both of those things, it’s a safe bet that Los Angeles is going to hold onto its veterans for next season.
As embarrassing a time it might be for the Lakers right now, Dwight’s decision was, if not completely demoralizing, a bit predictable. The Lakers have as few assets as any team in the league (no money, no youth, and looming luxury tax penalties taking the team’s payroll well over $100 million). Meanwhile, Houston is a young team on the rise with a scheme in place and long-term goals. The Lakers want their pedigree and banners to speak for them, but as provocative as Kobe’s aggresive-aggresive pitch might have seemed to the Lakers, they were wasting their breath: Dwight wasn’t spending the next five seasons shouldering the weight of the Lakers franchise as its best player. The Lakers wanted Dwight to be Kobe, to buy into the illusion of the Staples Center mystique and the championship banners that hang above the court.
Simply, that’s just not how Dwight’s wired. The Lakers never had a chance with that pitch.
What happens next:
The Lakers have some options: they can amnesty Metta or keep him as an expiring contract; rebuild around Pau OR trade him; re-sign any combination of Devin Ebanks, Darius Morris, Robert Sacre and Andrew Goudelock to one-year contracts; and they have a Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception ($3.2 million) available to them, as well as a Trade Exception ($1.2 million) which expires in August.
If the Lakers hold onto Gasol and keep Metta World Peace for the final year of his contract, they would have a Nash/Kobe/World Peace/Gasol/Jordan Hill starting lineup with Steve Blake, four or five cheap one-year contracts and a FA they picked up with their exceptions for next season. That team could compete, and if they avoid last year’s decimating injury bug, they could probably win 45-48 games and make the playoffs. Win or lose in a first round series against an elite team, the Lakers would have silly cap space for the summer of 2014, and would figure to be a prime landing spot for multiple all-stars.
Whether or not Golden State was ever a real contender for Dwight, it would be a mistake to ignore how great a fit they would have been for him. Stephen Curry – who makes between $9.9 and $12.1 million the next four years, prompting Bill Simmons to put him No. 3 on his Trade Value Rankings – would have been the best teammate Dwight ever had. (I say teammate not in the sense of talent, but in comparative styles – Dwight and Kobe didn’t work.) Marc Jackson is one of the game’s brightest coaches, which would have humbled Dwight. And while it may be years before we know if the Warriors made the right decision keeping Klay Thompson off the negotiating table, the Warriors should be applauded for sticking to their guns and keeping their young nucleus in tact.
Sidebar: It was complete gamesmanship for the Lakers to demand young talent like Thompson, or even Barnes, in an exchange for an immature 27-year-old coming off back surgery who was the second-best player on a team that nearly missed the playoffs and the best player for a team violently swept in the first round. In a game where the 3-ball is becoming vital to winning, breaking up Curry and Thompson is the equivalent of shooting your roster in the foot. I’d rather have Curry/Thompson as my base than Curry/Howard – I never could have imagined saying that three years ago.
The 2009-2011 Dwight isn’t around anymore, and Klay Thompson is more valuable long-term than 2013 Dwight, particularly when paired up with Curry, the future inventor of the 50-50-90 club. End sidebar.
What happens next:
Not landing Dwight doesn’t even scratch the surface of the worst things that have happened to the Warriors franchise since the 1970s. Incredibly, the Warriors preceded the Dwight Howard signing with the biggest “F-U-LA” signing I could think of. After clearing $24 million of expiring contracts (Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins and Brandon Rush) to the Utah Jazz, the Warriors signed Andre Iguodala, an Olympic Gold-medalist, all-NBA defender who never takes too many shots and has been a high-character, high-IQ guy since he started in the league. Iggy’s contract (four years, $48 million) is worth half of what Dwight will make, which speaks for itself in regard to long-term financial flexibility.
Sidebar: This is how you know the Warriors nailed this move. Imagine Dwight Howard on the Warriors this spring. Does that team go further with Dwight? I’m not so sure. 2013 Dwight was only so much better than healthy Andrew Bogut, who was the most underrated part of the Warriors playoff run. I think the Spurs still would have taken the Warriors in seven games because of San Antonio’s superior guard play and the deteriorating health of the Warriors rotation.
On the other hand, imagine Iggy on the Warriors. He instantly becomes the team’s best defender, meaning Parker has to score on Iguodala, which is easier said than done. With less wear and tear on Curry in the series and much more pressure on Parker, I’d say guard play would have been a wash that series. I also don’t think game one ends in Golden State pissing in their own sheets with Iguodala on roster. That puts the series at a 3-1 advantage for Golden State after game four.
If the 2013 Warriors were a 7.5 out of 10 last season, I think Dwight would have made them an 8, and Iggy would have made them an 8.5. End sidebar.
I shared my notes for this article with New York’s only Warriors fan Blaise Hill (@blaise_20), who insisted I mention Jarrett Jack more than I planned too. Warriors fans really loved what Jack brought to the team, but using all of their cap space on Iguodala has ensured they will lose him. Here’s what I’ll say about that: the Warriors found a way to turn Jarrett Jack (an above-average combo guard) and Carl Landry (an above-average tweener forward) into a fringe all-star who can guard four positions, doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be affective and has character dripping from every pour. That is a good thing. Jack and Landry are pieces for a very good team; Iguodala is the type of player that great teams need. It was a necessary move.
One last thing about the Warriors, who I’m going to award as a co-winner of this decision with Houston. When Bogut comes off the books next season ($14 million), the Warriors can use all of that money. Whether it’s giving lengthy extensions to Thompson and Barnes or competing for a huge FA in the summer of 2014, it’s their money. If the Warriors got Dwight, who is going to make $22 million per year in Houston, that money would affectively go directly into Dwight’s bank account.
After disbanding the 2011 championship team and building their roster upon affordable, one-year contracts, the Mavericks’ plan last summer to sign a pair of elite free agents was stalled when both Dwight and Chris Paul opted into the final years of their contract, and Deron Williams chose to stay in New Jersey/Brooklyn. Dallas responded by collecting one-year deals for a second consecutive year, giving themselves enough financial room to bring in stars this summer. But with Chris Paul confirming days ago he will be spending the next five seasons in Los Angeles, and Dwight’s decision to play for the division and state rival Houston, their master plan to team Dirk Nowitzki with an all-star point guard and Dwight has failed. For Marc Cuban, its back to the drawing board.
If the Mavericks learn anything from failing to land an elite FA the last two seasons, it’s that big name players don’t just want money, they want to be certain they will be playing for a contending team. Dwight not signing in Dallas is as much about Dallas having a bone-dry roster as it is about Houston making a better pitch. Superstars aren’t signing to a team just for the max-contract, but for the max-experience – Players like Dwight are measured in the rings they have, so the team he signs with needs to give him a chance to get some.
What happens next:
Dallas didn’t get their man, but they are far from ruined. Remaining financially flexible is the second strongest weapon in the NBA – LeBron James is first. If the Mavericks do nothing else but take a lot of cap space into next year, they won’t regret it. What they will regret is making a reactionary move to Dwight signing in Houston that is not well thought out and sets the franchise back for years. (See: My New York Knicks giving all of their money to three frontcourt players who can never play on the court at the same time.) Cuban was smart not to give Smith a $54-$60 million deal and parade him around Dallas as something he isn’t.
Finally, I love the move by Cuban to sign Jose Calderon on Friday. They get (1) a proven NBA starter, (2) sneakily one of the best shooters in NBA history, (3) someone who is fifth among active players for assists-per-game (7.2), and (4) an expert in the pick-and-roll offense, which all but guarantees Dirk a return to form if he stays healthy. Calderon only costs them $29 million the next four years, which means Dallas, who will once again have a mountain of cap space next summer, could be a great landing spot for any number of all-star free agents.
(Cuban to Mavericks fans after missing the playoffs again next year: “Hey guys, stay patient. This off-season FOR SURE. I hear LeBron LOVES Dallas.”)
Paul Coro wrote an excellent piece about the Dwight Howard madness and why Houston was the best fit.
Kareem Abdul-Jaabar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan might be the four best big men to enter the league since 1969, and they all have something unique in common: in the prime of their careers, they all joined forces with a younger, elite guard who gave their career new life. Kareem won one championship in his first eleven seasons; it was playing with Magic Johnson that pushed him to keep it going until 1989, and he finished with six championships. Hakeem got as close as one Finals appearance before teaming up with Clyde Drexler and winning back-to-back championships in ’94 and ’95. Shaq perfected the move, twice joining forces with a superstar guard (Kobe, Dwayne Wade) and netting four championships. And Tim Duncan won two championships as the undisputed best player on his team before Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili came into their own and helped secure two more titles in San Antonio (and nearly a third).
You can’t talk about any of those bigs without mentioning the elite company they had at the guard position. At only 23 years of age, James Harden is that type of guard: he’s going to be the best shooting guard in the NBA for years. No other team in the running for Dwight could offer him the chance to play with such an elite scorer/playmaker.
Sidebar: The exception, of course, was Golden State, if Stephen Curry can stay healthy and perfect his “Ray Allen 2.0 meets 2005 Steve Nash” game. In July 2013, I’ll give Harden the slight edge in the “Which guy’s better?” debate and beg Curry to prove me wrong. End sidebar.
Dwight is also perfect for Houston’s offense. It’s all three-pointers and lay-ups. What does Dwight do offensively? Is he a cerebral, post-move genius? No. Is he a mid-range jump shot artist who loves to isolate his defender? No. Dwight’s ideal offense is four guys on the perimeter who can all shoot threes (it gives him rebounding opportunities), make threes (it means he only has to average 18 a night instead of 28) and use the pick-and-roll game (the only offensive concept Dwight is secure with).
Omer Asik was really good in that role last year, and for $8.3 million, he has value. The difference between Houston competing for low-playoff seeds and high-playoff seeds, however, is having Dwight for 35 minutes per game. Can you argue that Asik is more valuable at $8.3 million than Dwight is for $22 million? Yes. But team’s don’t usually win championships with Asik as their starting center; HOF center’s win championships all the time.
Dwight’s contract (4 years, $22 million per year) is huge. Houston is not done adjusting and adding to the roster this off-season, as several questions need to be answered: (1) Do they still feel the need to pay Asik $8 million to come off the bench? (2) Is Jeremy Lin their starting point guard or not, and could they find someone to take him off their hands? and (3) will the Rockets attempt to add a third star player to the roster with the cap space they have left?
Pursuing Dwight has forced Houston to make harsh decisions on role players. The Rockets cut Aaron Brooks and Carlos Delfino, and also traded Thomas Robinson – who they successfully stole from Sacramento – for foreign talent and future picks to avoid paying first round salaries this year. The Rockets would still need to move Asik/Lin ($16 million) in order to truly entertain bringing in a third star player.
Sidebar: Houston will never know how lucky they are that Detroit plucked Smith off the market. Smith wasn’t an ideal piece for the Rockets, considering he can’t shoot threes or consistently get his own shot, a red flag in a fast-paced, heavy 3-point shooting offense. If I’m Houston, I wouldn’t even go after a third star player this off-season, unless it’s a perfect fit. I’d rather be a piece away from a title in 2013-14 and have money to spend in a deep 2014 FA class then overpay Smith now just because they can.
Giving Smith a $50 million contract or not might have been the difference between the Rockets becoming the Knicks (a team bogged down by heavy contracts to flawed star players) or the Heat (a team jettisoned to the top of the sport after the addition of one great player to a roster with another great player and plenty of complimentary pieces).
Sidebar (II): Yes, in one sentence I both compared signing Josh Smith to signing Amar’e Stoudemire and the Houston Rockets to the Miami Heat. End sidebar(s).
If I was Houston, I’d celebrate the accomplishment of pairing the game’s best young guard with the best rebounder and post-defender, fill out the roster with intelligent, affordable veterans and do damn near whatever it takes to turn Asik/Lin into a long-term piece. Whether they listen to me or not, the Rockets are very suddenly a team to watch next season.
Sidebar: How did I write 3,000 words on the Dwight Howard signing without mentioning how none of this would be possible without Sam Presti’s infamous James Harden trade? Considering that Howard wouldn’t have signed with Houston if they didn’t have Harden, the Rockets turned Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, a No. 12 pick in a historically poor draft and a top-20 protected pick in next year’s draft into James Harden, and Dwight Howard a year later. Wow. End sidebar.
Joe Manganiello (@joemags32) is a NBA fanatic, screenwriter and a New York sports fan (Syracuse basketball, New York Knicks, Buffalo Bills). He studied journalism and cinema at Oswego State University – Peace, love, recycle and ball.