You know where this is headed. Unless Patrick Beverley comes flying out of the stands to take out LeBron James or Tony Parker, we're getting a history-altering Heat-Spurs showdown. Can Miami finish off one of the greatest basketball seasons ever played? Can the Spurs win their fifth title while breaking the record for "Most times a fan base irrationally claimed that everyone hated them"? Will LeBron officially join the "Greatest Player Ever" conversation? Will Tim Duncan officially hijack "Best Player of His Generation" status from Kobe Bryant? Will Gregg Popovich forge his way onto the NBA Coaching Mount Rushmore? Will Chris Andersen break the record for most casual viewers who said the words, "My God, look at those tattoos!"
It would be a Finals teeming with story lines — including another 12 good ones that I left out — and if there's anything that sucks right now about the playoffs, it's next round's inevitability after just three Round 3 games. Pacers fans will spend the summer muttering, "Why did he take Hibbert out?" Grizzlies fans will spend the summer muttering, "I don't mind that we traded Rudy Gay, but jeez, couldn't we have gotten a little more?" And that will be that.1
So screw it, let's dive into the most polarizing NBA topic in years: the Dwight Howard Sweepstakes, a worthy successor to Bachelor Pad as 2013's most unpredictable summer series. Here's a text exchange I had with someone who works for one of the 30 NBA franchises. I thought it summed everything up.
Him: "U writing about Dwight soon?"
Me: "Think so. Would u go near him?"
Him: "FUCK NO."
Me: "What if he wanted to sign with u?"
Him: "I guess we'd have to."
Look at those seven texts. They explain everything. From FUCK NO to I guess we'd have to in about 40 seconds. NBA franchises look at Dwight Howard the same way a struggling actor looks at Lindsay Lohan at 2:30 in the morning at Bar Marmont. I shouldn't pursue this … but I guess I have to. If you're an owner, Dwight Howard makes you a contender or a laughingstock. If you're a GM, Dwight Howard earns you an extension or the midnight shift as Talking Head No. 128 in Bristol. If you're a coach, Dwight Howard brings you to the Finals or ruins your life.
I can't remember a "marquee superstar" free agent quite like him. In the final installment of my Trade Value Trilogy two weeks ago, I compared the experience of watching Howard play basketball after 2011's NBA lockout to watching Mike Tyson after his prison release in 1995. They looked like the same guy, even if the results weren't backing it up. In Tyson's case, we waited eight solid years for the invincible Iron Mike to return to prominence, finally giving up after Lennox Lewis coldcocked him into Bolivian. Will the rest of Dwight Howard's decade unfold like that? Were these last two Magic/Lakers seasons like Tyson's two uneven slugfests against Razor Ruddock, both of which preceded his Evander Holyfield defeats and established that he wasn't the same anymore … only we didn't want to admit it?
Let's break down the 10 realities of Dwight's situation — not what we think we know, but what we actually know.
Reality No. 1: Dwight Howard deserves a max contract, just not a mega-max contract
I created the word "mega-max" because it's the only way to explain the difference between a max contract, a franchise max contract and a MAX contract. Last summer, Brook Lopez signed a "max" deal for $60.86 million and Roy Hibbert and Eric Gordon signed four-year "max" deals for $58.5 million.2 Technically, they're "max" players even though they're really mini-maxers. Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant signed "franchise max" deals, taking advantage of a beneficial rule in the latest CBA that allows one player per franchise to fetch a five-year extension.. They're "max" players in the traditional sense. And Howard is eligible for a "mega-max" deal; he's coming off a lavish contract that paid him $19.3 million in the 2012-13 season, allowing the Lakers to extend him for up to five years and a staggering $118 million.3
You could safely call Howard a "max" player. He's probably not a "franchise max" guy anymore, but as he's one of the best 30 guys in a 30-team league, you could talk me into it. He's definitely NOT a mega-max player; that would mean he's a force of nature, but the numbers from the past two seasons say differently. So does the Eye Test. There's more than a little Jim Carrey Syndrome going on here. Jim Carrey is an A-list movie star, right? Well, here are the six movies Carrey has headlined since 2005.4
Fun With Dick & Jane
The Number 23
I Love You Phillip Morris
Mr. Popper's Penguins
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Yikes. At some point, you are who you are. Jim Carrey isn't an A-list movie star anymore. And Dwight Howard isn't a mega-max player anymore.
Reality No. 2: Despite everything you just read, the Lakers could give Dwight the mega-max without blinking.
The Lakers moved to Los Angeles in 1960 and slapped together five-plus decades of astonishing relevance. They've sent 25 teams to the Finals and won 11 championships. They've somehow employed SEVEN of the 13 greatest players ever: Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe.5 Since the ABA and NBA merged in 1976, they've missed the playoffs exactly twice. They've trotted out four of the 10 best basketball teams ever: '72, '82, '87 and '01. They were blessed with the best basketball owner ever (Dr. Jerry Buss), one of the most powerful brands ever ("Showtime"), the most famous celebrity fan ever (Jack Nicholson), the second-most famous cheerleaders ever (the Laker Girls) and the most unique atmosphere for any ongoing sporting event (any home Laker game, an experience that I tried to capture three years ago).
Even better: They play in the second-biggest television market, in a sprawling, expensive city located near the Pacific Ocean that appeals to any famous millionaire who values his privacy while also appreciating a quality night on the town. It's a ridiculously successful franchise with distinct advantages, some inherent and some earned. But above all else, no advantage matters more than that the Los Angeles Lakers are a purple-and-yellow cash cow.
Put aside their crazy courtside prices for a second. And put aside their cut of the NBA's national TV deal, broadband rights, their merchandise money, their alpha dog status in Los Angeles, and their far-reaching clout as the league's signature team. Time Warner recently paid the Lakers $3.6 billion over 20 years to broadcast their games in Southern California. That money could cover 30 Dwight Howard contracts. In fact, that Time Warner windfall by itself could sustain a $100 million payroll with an $80 million luxury-tax bill for every year until 2033.
So "Should we re-sign Dwight?" doesn't have much to do with money. On July 1, Fredo Buss could wire the entire $118 million into Dwight's checking account without blinking. And by the way, if they WERE worried about money for some reason, they would only have to amnesty Kobe Bryant (unlikely) or give the final year of Pau Gasol's contract ($19.3 million) away to a team with cap space and cheap assets. For instance, if the Lakers amnestied Metta World Peace's final season ($7.7 million), then traded Gasol to Cleveland for Anderson Varejao ($9.1 million, expires next year) and the no. 31 and no. 33 picks (cheap labor), they could keep Dwight and Kobe while saving something like $55 million in luxury tax fees.
At the same time …
Where am I going with that specific team? Short-term, I'm building around Dwight, a rehabbing Kobe, a broken-down Steve Nash and the CHANCE that LeBron will sign with me in 2014? Long-term, I'm planning the rest of my decade around the next few Howard-related realities.
Reality No. 3: Dwight Howard peaked already
We already covered this problem in Howard's Trade Value section: From 2008 through 2011, Howard dragged a half-decent Magic team to a 219-102 record and one Finals appearance. These last two seasons, Howard's Magic/Lakers teams finished 75-55. Huge, huge difference. His offensive numbers dipped dramatically …
2011: 22.9 PPG, 14.1 RPG, 59% FG, 60% FT, 227 dunks, 26.1 PER (2nd in NBA)
2013: 17.1 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 58% FG, 49% FT, 187 dunks, 19.4 PER (36th)
… and defensively, he wasn't the league's dominant shot-blocker/rebounder anymore. You could argue that Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol AND Roy Hibbert are better at anchoring a defense than he is. (In fact, I think I just did.) Remember when Orlando sneaked into the 2009 Finals thanks to timely 3-point shooting and a monster two-way performance by Dwight?6 In the past 40 years, only Kareem, Dave Cowens, Moses Malone, Duncan, Shaq and Howard averaged a 20-15 in the postseason for a Finals team. That's five Hall of Famers plus Dwight, including four of the best players ever.
You could interpret that 2009 run two ways: either as "that was only four years ago," or as "that was FOUR FULL YEARS AGO."
My take: He's not the same guy. Back surgery didn't help, obviously. Nine years of lesser players body-blocking him, yanking his arms and hammering him from behind — that didn't help, either. New Dwight looks like a slightly hampered, less athletic, more headcase-y version of Old Dwight. That's not a smart $118 million investment whether you're ridiculously wealthy or not — especially when prohibitive luxury tax rules restrict your ability to use free-agent exceptions for veteran role players. And if you're shelling out that much money for him, you're really praying that another summer of rest will "heal" Dwight's back, that 758 games of wear and tear haven't fundamentally altered him. You're paying New Dwight without knowing if Old Dwight is ever coming back.
Reality No. 4: Dwight's offensive game hasn't improved
Did he fail out of Hakeem's summer camp and we never got the memo? Every Dwight jump hook looks like he's hurling a rock through a window. His footwork gives you that same "I'm just trying to get through this sequence alive" feeling you get when you're watching D-list celebs on Dancing With the Stars. He can't make even a 10-foot jumper, and his free throw shooting is more ghastly than ever (49 percent). He's a lousy passer from the low post who has never averaged even TWO assists per game. And he rarely out-hustles other bigs down the floor for layups or dunks anymore, something Tim Duncan gleefully exposed during the humiliating Spurs beatdown. Should Duncan (37, nearly 1,382 career games) repeatedly beat Howard (27, 758 career games) down the floor in a playoff game? You tell me.
By Year 10, you are who you are as a big guy. Hakeem peaked the latest of anyone — Year 9 — and trust me, Dwight Howard ain't Hakeem. Kareem peaked in Year 2 and kept peaking all the way through Year 8. Shaq, Mourning and Moses peaked in Year 8. McHale peaked in Year 7. Ewing peaked in Year 6. Duncan, Robinson, Gilmore and Walton peaked in Year 5. Dwight Howard peaked from Year 5 through Year 7, and now he's here. Along those same lines …
Reality No. 5: The odds are extremely favorable that Dwight will keep declining
In just two seasons, Dwight's per-game averages dropped from 22.9 points and 14.1 rebounds (2011) to 17.1 and 12.4 (2013), and his PER free-fell from 26.1 (2011) to 19.2 (2013). I looked up the year-by-year PER of every memorable "big" from Kareem on to see if any of them suffered a 25 percent PER drop-off within a two-year span during the first 12 years of their career.
Our results: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (not even close), Shaquille O'Neal (no), David Robinson (yes), Hakeem Olajuwon (no), Tim Duncan (no), Moses Malone (close in Year 10, but no), Kevin Garnett (no), Yao Ming (no), Artis Gilmore (no), Patrick Ewing (no), Bob Lanier (no), Kevin McHale (no), Alonzo Mourning (yes), Chris Webber (yes), Jermaine O'Neal (yes), Charles Barkley (no) and Karl Malone (no).
So only four of those 18 guys suffered a comparable drop-off, all because of injuries: Robinson (back), Webber (knee), Mourning (kidney) and Jermaine O'Neal (everything).7 None of them ever regained their kick-ass form — Robinson came the closest, making two more All-Star teams before his body finally broke down (although his days as a 26-12 guy were long gone). Are you willing to wager $118 million that Dwight Howard will become the first marquee big guy in four-plus decades to buck that 25 Percent Drop-off trend? History says Old Dwight is never coming back.
Reality No. 6: Dwight Howard can't handle it
What's "it?" Um … the media … expectations … pressure … the responsibility of being a leader … the expectations of being a franchise guy … should I keep going? NBA people started questioning him during the 2008 Olympics, when he annoyed teammates and coaches for being so happy-go-lucky. He nearly fouled out of the gold-medal game against Spain, playing just 17 minutes and getting outplayed by the Gasol hermanos. (That's the biggest reason Kobe Bryant initially resisted a Dwight trade last summer; their Olympic experience soured him, leading to their famously awkward phone call that nearly derailed a possible Lakers deal.) When back surgery knocked him out of the 2012 Olympics, the USA Basketball community wasn't exactly crestfallen. As one insider told me at the time, "Now we don't have to babysit him."
Oh wait, I never mentioned how Howard sold out Stan Van Gundy last year, or how he completely caved during the 2012 trade deadline with one of the strangest flip-flops in NBA history, or any of the woe-is-me crap he pulled this season, or his bizarre decision to get booted from that final Lakers playoff game. Who does that???? Another mega-contract only creates bigger expectations: The Lakers would be effectively saying, "We're passing the torch from Mikan to Elgin to West to Kareem to Magic to Shaq to Kobe to Dwight." This guy needs MORE pressure? He couldn't even handle a trade deadline! Throw in his increasingly desperate quest to remain goofy and irreverent — which nearly drove Kobe to commit a homicide last season — and I don't know what to tell you. When your best player isn't a leader, but he isn't a follower, either … where are you really going?
Reality No. 7: Lakers fans would flip out if Dwight Howard left
Do you make moves based on a fear of fan reaction? Of course not. Well … unless you inherited the team, you're not a self-made man, you don't have any real business experience, and you have no confidence whatsoever. Then, you might.
And here's the thought process …
OK, let's say we let Dwight leave. Who's happy paying $350 per ticket to watch Pau Gasol, a 40-year-old Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Earl Clark, Jodie Meeks, Robert Sacre and two months of Kobe in a throwaway season with us telepathically sending six months of "Don't worry, we're the Lakers, this shit always works out for us in the long run, you better renew your season tickets or you might miss the LeBron era" vibes? Anyone? Any takers? At least Dwight makes us SEEM relevant. WE HAVE TO SIGN DWIGHT!
Personally, I believe Lakers fans are smarter than that. Instead of betting on Dwight, I think they'd sign off on keeping Gasol, praying Kobe returns sooner than later, and trying to sign-and-trade Howard to either Houston (for Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik) or Golden State (for Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes) — a move that, combined with a World Peace amnesty, solves their luxury-tax issues while keeping them semi-competitive next season AND keeping their 2014 LeBron window open.8 It's just a shrewder, safer play. But we're talking about Jimmy Buss here … so yeah.
Reality No. 8: Dwight Howard just isn't that entertaining
An underrated but crucial point. As a Lakers fan/buddy e-mailed me during the Spurs-Lakers series, "I have to ask — what's fun about watching Dwight Howard?"
Well, the winning part used to be fun. From 2008 through 2011, Howard gave his team a better chance of succeeding than anyone other than LeBron, if only because Howard was superior to every other "top" center and significantly superior to everyone else.9 You can't say that anymore. Check this out.
Player A: 14.1 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.7 BPG, 49% FG, 85% FT, 19.5 PER, 11.5 WS
Player B: 19.4 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 0.9 APG, 2.1 BPG, 52% FG, 76% FT, 24.7 PER, 9.0 WS
Player C: 17.4 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.1 BPG, 54% FG, 64% FT, 19.8 PER, 8.8 WS
Player D: 17.8 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 2.7 APG, 2.7 BPG, 50% FG, 82% FT, 24.4 PER, 8.3 WS
Player E: 17.1 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 1.4 APG, 2.4 BPG, 58% FG, 49% FT, 19.4 PER, 7.6 WS
Player F: 17.1 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 2.7 APG, 0.7 BPG, 47% FG, 74% FT, 20.2 PER, 4.4 WS
Those players in order, along with their financial commitments starting next season …
Player A: Marc Gasol (2 years, $30.7 million)
Player B: Brook Lopez (3 years, $47.2 million)
Player C: Al Horford (3 years, $36 million)
Player D: Tim Duncan (2 years, $20.6 million)
Player E: Dwight Howard (5 years, $118 million — theoretically)
Player F: Boogie Cousins (rookie deal)
Starting to see the big picture now? Even if Howard averages an 18-12, shoots 57 percent and makes half his free throws for the next five years, where am I really going? I don't have a guaranteed contender, that's for sure. Oh, and I'm building around a big guy who isn't a force of nature anymore, doesn't play basketball that artfully, misses half his free throws and doesn't make anyone say the words, "I can't wait to see Dwight Howard play in person tonight."
Would you put him on your "Top 30 Most Entertaining NBA Players" list? I sure wouldn't. This recent Forbes article was fascinating: LeBron James generated $300 million worth of U.S. sneaker sales in 2012, outselling every other NBA star by a 6-to-1 margin. The rest of the top five: Kobe ($50 million), Carmelo ($40 million), Durant ($35 million) and Rose ($25 million). Dwight Howard? He sold $5 million worth of sneakers, the same number as John Wall. Sorry to be harsh, but as a "marketable personality," Dwight Howard just never got there.
Reality No. 9: Only one franchise makes sense for Dwight
And it's not the Lakers.
What do we know about Dwight over everything else? He loves the superstar spoils (celebrity, adoration, attention, money) while loathing the rigors that come with it (the pressure of carrying a team, the leadership aspects, and especially, the media pressure). Don't forget his history: high school ball at a private school in Atlanta, followed by eight seasons in Orlando (one of the league's most mellow markets). Until his bizarre 2012 trade deadline fiasco happened, he'd never dealt with any real national backlash. His Lakers season overwhelmed him: A never-ending media crush coupled with the reasonable expectations of a rabid fan base with high standards. In April, Howard confessed to someone close to the team, "I didn't realize playing in L.A. was gonna be so tough." Whaaaaaaaaaat??? You really had no idea, Dwight?
After the season ended, Howard kept a low profile — only tweeting a couple of times (including two or three kooky ones), then reportedly complaining about Mike D'Antoni's coaching style to Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak (which Kupchak later denied). If the Lakers not-so-mysteriously change coaches right before Howard re-signs, the blood would be on Howard's hands yet again — unfair in this case, only because D'Antoni did such an atrocious job running that team. But still. It's almost like the basketball gods are conspiring to push Howard out of L.A.
Then again, would that be a bad thing? We have overwhelming evidence that Howard can't handle carrying a big-market franchise, that he's better off in a more laid-back situation — ideally as the running mate for someone who could shoulder the superstar burdens for him. That's why the Rockets make so much sense. That's an underrated destination city for NBA players: no state income tax, great barbecue, fun nightlife,10 low cost of living, a diverse population, and best of all (for Dwight, anyway), decidedly less pressure. Football rules the roost in Texas. The Houston media wouldn't pick Dwight apart. Rockets fans would be happy to have him. He'd even have Hakeem down the street as a potential Basketball Yoda. And they could re-create a superior version of Dwight's 2009 Magic team with Howard, James Harden and a bunch of slash-and-kick shooters.
Jumping to Houston makes sense for Howard on just about every level … well, except for one. His critics would eviscerate him for running from Orlando and Los Angeles. And they wouldn't necessarily be wrong. We already know that Dwight is oversensitive. Some believe Dwight reversed course and agreed to that one-year Orlando extension because he couldn't stop reading his Twitter replies right before the 2012 trade deadline; as the theory goes, he kept reading fans calling him a quitter and a loser, then melted down. So even if he believed Houston (or Dallas, or Atlanta, or wherever) was a better situation and wanted to play there, could he handle the inevitable "YOU QUIT ON THE LAKERS!" critics? Could he summon the intestinal fortitude to leave?
It's unclear … just like everything else with Dwight Howard.
Reality No. 10: Despite everything you just read, the Rockets, Mavericks, Hawks, Warriors and Lakers would almost definitely still pay Dwight Howard $118 million over five years
If you're the first three teams, and you have no other way of luring a franchise big man … you probably roll the dice. If you're the Warriors? You might roll the dice just to make a splash and build around an admittedly intriguing Curry-Thompson-Howard core. But if you're the Lakers? And you have an established history of luring franchise guys because of your tradition/weather/location/history? And you have a slew of superstar free agents coming in the summer of 2014 (including LeBron)? You should walk away from the dice. You should. Whether they will or not ... that remains to be seen.
Just know that some NBA owner will be grabbing those dice soon. And deep down, he'll be nervous as hell about it. Once upon a time, Dwight Howard was just about the surest thing there was. Those days are gone. Over everything else, let's at least agree on that.