Image via SportsGrid.
Image via SportsGrid.
1. Despite or because of the oh-look-a-butterfly whiplash decision-making on Howard's part that earned so much rightful scorn, everyone knew that he was done in Orlando. And because making that decision to leave is entirely his right—even though his petulant, blundering exercise of that right makes him look like the spoiled goon many people still assume all professional athletes are—the Orlando Magic and new GM Rob Hennigan faced a quandary that may not have had an acceptable solution. With every bridge finally, excruciatingly, and all too publicly burned—and with each lick of flame documented and debated and shouted and snarked about in a sports discourse that always seemed half-disgusted with the whole affair—the team’s only recourse was to trade the NBA's best center for a package that, with any luck, would expedite an immediate and total rebuilding process. Given the rejection of packages from Brooklyn and Houston—both of which looked at least reasonable, if inevitably and obviously not quite even value for the player who is, if you’re just joining us, the NBA’s best center—it seemed like due diligence was being paid by the Magic brass, and that was laudable.
2. It seemed like that, and it was laudable. Finding an NBA franchise player is not as easy as stopping at Max Contracts R Us—it’s like Brookstone, but with Joe Johnsons instead of vibrating recliners--and opening the money clip. Teams that are lucky enough to have one and unlucky enough—or nepotistically, myopically and clownishly run enough—to have to trade that player, the only truly beneficial return is either another franchise player (not likely), or sufficient picks and cap space relief to facilitate the acquisition of another franchise player through (good luck) the draft or (also not likely) free agency. Neither the Nets or Rockets could offer option A, but both did offer option B. The Rockets, who have a probable lottery pick from Toronto to add to any deal, used their amnesty clause on one of their three best players in order to ease acquiring Dwight, and for no other discernible reason; the Nets offered four unprotected first round picks and Brook Lopez, who is certainly the NBA center who would be most excited to hang out near Disneyworld, and has some other useful skills besides. If you are a GM who has to make this trade—and Hennigan, after firing the very valuable and qualified Stan Van Gundy in hopes of keeping Howard, is decidedly that GM—and you can get option B, you're as happy as you're likely to get after trading a franchise player. The Magic, in this deal, got neither A) nor B). They appear happy anyway, but of course that is how they are supposed to appear. But they have not unearthed some sort of Moneyball diamond-in-disguise in Al Harrington; Arron Afflalo is really good, and he’s also Arron Afflalo; Moe Harkless was the 15th pick of this year's draft. Those picks are all lottery-protected. So, yeah: Option C.
3. About Option C, then: that would be a deal that looks, smells, and feels like Option B, at least until closer inspection. Orlando not receive any of the best players to relocate in a four-way deal—Howard went to Los Angeles, Andrew Bynum to Philadelphia, and Andre Iguodala to Denver; what’s left went to Orlando. Neither, inevitably, will any of the players headed to Orlando fill the Howard-sized void; also, the three first round picks Orlando is receiving, one from each of the other (playoff-bound) teams, are all lottery-protected. There is a reason, an obvious one that you already know, why playoff teams are willing to trade their first-round picks; it is also the reason why people bitterly goofed on Daryl Morey on Thursday night for acquiring so many meh-to-sub-meh-grade picks. Anyone who could’ve explained how the deal the Magic just accepted, months before the trade deadline, topped the four unprotected first-rounders or cap-relief-and-a-lottery-pick has been free to do so since Adrian Wojnarowski broke the news on the deal. It hasn’t happened yet.
4. An NBA neutral doesn’t have to hate the Los Angeles Lakers to hate this deal. Still, it doesn’t hurt. Philadelphia and Denver both did well in this trade, but the Lakers got the deal that the Lakers always seem to get. From the franchise’s acquisitions of Wilt, Kareem and Shaq to the insane deal that allowed the Lakers to get Magic and Worthy in consecutive drafts, the Lakers seem far more adept at low-risk superstar-directed coups than any other NBA franchise. To give them credit for this deal is to bestow criminal mastermind status on a burglar who walks through an unlocked front door and emerges with a U-Haul full of diamonds and Basquiats. It’s unfair, as a neutral fan or a non-neutral one, to ask NBA teams to collude against the Lakers. It does not seem unfair to wonder why other franchises—or just the Magic, who have now done this twice—persist in handing the Lakers generation-defining centers every decade or so. The Thunder and Spurs, different though they are in most every way, reached their current positions through hard, smart work. They are now watching the Lakers float on past them in a gold and purple balloon, with David Stern watching impassively and noting that, hey, it works under the cap.
5. Since 1979, nine teams have won the NBA title; even if OKC wins the title as we all assume they eventually will, that will make an even ten in three-plus decades. Fans and pundits routinely chide/blast owners for not spending money, in the understanding that the only legitimate reason to own a sports team is to bring that team’s fans a championship; it sure as hell shouldn't be to make money, because lord knows a billionaire can and probably should find better ways to do that, although the NBA’s ruling billionaires seem to disagree mightily on that. But given all the talk of competitive balance, and given the newly arrogated and not-yet-dusty veto power the commissioner recently used so strangely in the name of fair play, how are non-aligned fans supposed to feel about this deal? What are we supposed to believe, besides that the deck is stacked or the dice are loaded or some other cliche of your choice related to gambling paraphernalia? It is enough to make a conspiracy theorist out of even reasonable fans. Not because there’s a conspiracy, of course. There isn’t. But just because it’s tough to believe that this sort of thing could keep happening—so egregiously and so predictably and with the same beneficiaries—without one.