Dwight Howard couldn't have been a more gracious host over All-Star Weekend, playing ringmaster, addressing the crowd before Sunday's main event and doing everything he could to paint himself as the consummate franchise pillar. Orlando was his city, and he was proud to show it off to an international audience.
The only catch is, since the beginning of the season, Howard has been plotting his exit strategy, going so far as to seek permission from the Magic to talk turkey with the Dallas Mavericks, the Los Angeles Lakers and the New Jersey (soon-to-be Brooklyn) Nets. If not actively disparaging his current team, Howard is at the very least sending a message that he's considering other options. When he makes these options as explicit as he has, Howard actually makes it harder to get what he wants.
Athletes should feel free to speak their minds as they please. However, sometimes it's not in their best interest to show their hand or open behind-the-scenes lines of communication that are sure to find their way back to the NBA rumors pages. It's just not good business.
If nothing else, the current generation of young NBA superstars should be concerned with that angle. After all, with LeBron James leading the way, they are seeking to not just make money, win titles and rack up All-Star appearances, but to take hold of the league in a way that scares the crap out of the owners.
Except that Howard, in trying to exercise the superstar's leverage, has hurt his team's leverage in any potential trade. He's limited the number of suitors, thus preempting an all-out bidding war. He's done much to create the impression that he will leave at year's end, thus preventing suitors from even seeking a trade before the deadline.
And if a team is looking to get Howard for this year, knowing the big man has a wandering eye makes it harder for the Magic to get value in return.
It's one thing to show the team who is in charge. The most creative example of this kind of power move is—and always will be—the mini-max, the three-year guarantee plus options on subsequent years intended to put pressure on the front office. Howard could simply have let it be known that he might not re-sign, putting the ball in the Magic's court to take all the risk while still retaining his value.
Instead, Howard has painted himself into a corner. He's not quite at the mercy of GM Otis Smith, but the Magic can always say they tried and failed to make a deal that was satisfactory to him and them. Really, it's the teams he has listed as approved destinations that hold all the cards.
So while Howard may shill for Orlando when it suits him, he's actually making it harder for him to do what is best for the city and—if his goal is indeed to end up with a team that suits his needs—himself.
Kobe Bryant has shown some equally rash business acumen about potential trades, but in a very different way. The Lakers are an old team that, in what still looks like a topsy-turvy year, might have a title run in them if they make a crucial move. Another way of saying it: Kobe needs help to win a Michael Jordan-tying sixth ring, and his current cast isn’t enough.
If David Stern hadn’t vetoed the trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers, Kobe’s team would be sitting pretty. Who knows, the Lakers may even have completed a trade for Howard by now, thus turning themselves into an unstoppable juggernaut with life well beyond Bryant’s career. Instead, they’re left looking for a move, any move, that could shake things up.
The obvious trade chip is Pau Gasol. Although Gasol didn’t make the All-Star Game this year—his younger brother, Marc, did instead—he’s still a great player. The size of Gasol and Andrew Bynum remains the Lakers' most consistent advantage over other teams, but Bynum might be enough, Gasol makes a lot, and again, there must be life after Kobe.
Thus, Gasol’s name has begun to pop up again in trade rumors. Maybe he’s headed to the Houston Rockets for some guard depth. Maybe to the Boston Celtics for Rajon Rondo. Maybe to the Chicago Bulls for Carlos Boozer. The possibilities go on and on, and that’s certainly to the Lakers’ advantage, even if there’s no way all of them are grounded in reality.
Kobe, however, has made it known that he wants to keep Gasol, but that if a trade is going to happen, it should happen sooner rather than later so the suspense doesn’t start to get under anyone’s skin.
Bryant is one of the smartest players in the NBA. However, he fails to consider the way the marketplace works. Gasol isn’t desperate like Howard. The Lakers aren’t, either. They can stand pat and live with themselves just fine. Certainly, Kobe is in favor of that option. With demand for Gasol high and the team having any number of needs it could fill, it does the Lakers no good to act rashly.
Not to mention, the Lakers still want Howard, and Gasol could well end up being part of that trade. There’s just no telling. Kobe’s loyalty and frustration is understandable, but not being open to options is as bad here as in Howard’s case.
Players have clearly established their right to speak and to be listened to. Now, they need to work on figuring out when it makes the most sense to stay quiet.