Calls for trading Dwight Howard are nothing new. Ever since the team’s 1-4 start to the season, a vocal subset of Laker fans have wondered what all the fuss was about with their biggest offseason acquisition. Howard may be starting the All-Star game, but he has been far from the most impactful big man in the Western Conference this season.
All the clamoring for the Lakers to take drastic action has been undercut, however, by several realities. From the perspectives of chemistry, public relations and the all-powerful collective bargaining agreement, dealing away the player who is the best center in the NBA, when healthy, is rife with challenges. Yet as the Lakers limp to a 2-10 record in the month of January, trading Howard may not be completely unthinkable.
The soap opera situation in Los Angeles has become only one of the reasons. If Howard were simply failing to fit in with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, the Lakers would still be best suited to be patient with the 27-year-old behemoth. In fact, that still might be their wisest course of action. But with Howard eligible for unrestricted free agency at the end of the season, and the Lakers already on the hook for more than $79 million in salaries next season before they almost completely clear the books in 2014, both the team and the player have to take a hard look at whether a long-term marriage can succeed.
Even if Howard were at the top of his game, trading him and his $19.5 million contract would be exceedingly difficult. Despite continually letting the world know he wanted out of Orlando over the last two years, Howard remained a member of the Magic almost to the bitter end because it was difficult to find an equal exchange of salary and talent. Now that Howard clearly has a recurring shoulder injury that may limit him throughout the season, finding a justifiable deal would be even harder for the Lakers.
Rather than seek a fair trade in talent, the Lakers would need to seek a return that offered some type of acceptable name recognition for fans while keeping the team’s payroll flexible beyond next season. Dallas and Atlanta have these sorts of tradable assets, and both have been rumored in connection with Howard since his days in Orlando. Any team that acquires Howard also acquires his Bird rights, which gives them benefits in trying to re-sign him next summer — benefits that would be crucial for a team like the Hawks, who are over the luxury tax threshold for this season and have more than $73 million in cap holds this summer.
How the Lakers proceed will have to come down to whether they want to be the team with those signing advantages or if they chalk this season up as a failed experiment.
As usual, trading a superstar mid-season is far from advisable. During the season, executives can be just as susceptible to overreaction as coaches, players and fans. Any move made emotionally is bound to be regretted later. As mentioned above, the Lakers clear a huge amount from their payroll in 2014, with only Steve Nash currently under contract for the 2014-15 season. By then, it might be irrelevant whether Howard can mesh with Bryant and Gasol, because both may be gone in a year and a half.
Then there is the P.R. nightmare that would result from giving up on the Howard experiment after just half a season. Given the P.R. nightmare that already exists, this might simply be a case of closing the stable door after the horse has escaped. But executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak have gone to great lengths to convince everyone that there is nothing to see here, that these are natural growing pains for a future championship team. Mike Brown was a convenient target for blame for a while, and now Mike D’Antoni has proved that the Lakers’ problems went deeper than the coach. Should the Lakers rid themselves of Howard and continue to struggle, the only other place to lay fault is the organization’s leadership. This debacle would devolve into a fiasco of epic proportions.
By taking a deep breath and looking at the situation objectively, Kupchak and the Lakers most likely will opt to hold onto Howard and see how the rest of the season develops. The way this once-dream season has spiraled down, though, every option could be open for the Lakers.