Post-Nash Lakers Must Focus on Dwight Howard's Bird Rights, Not Dwight

William Van NollFeatured ColumnistJuly 7, 2012

ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 14:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Orlando Magic speaks to the media after the Magic lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Five of the 2009 NBA Finals on June 14, 2009 at Amway Arena in Orlando, Florida.  The Lakers won 99-86.  NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Los Angeles Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak acquired future Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash using an $8.9 million trade exception and is likely focusing on another technical tool within the new CBA in his quest to land Dwight Howard.

The legalese of interest is none other than Bird Rights—a critical component to the NBA's labor agreement and a cornerstone to the soft cap salary structure governing team payrolls. 

Named for the inimitable Larry Bird, Bird Rights permit teams to exceed the salary cap to re-sign players as free agents after playing with a team for three years. When a player is traded, his new team inherits his Bird Rights.

Using Chris Paul's rejection last week of the Clippers' three-year, $60 million extension as an example, I discussed how the new CBA complicates a Howard trade because players will typically hold out and become free agents for more money on longer-term contracts instead of signing extensions.

Why would anyone accept an extension when he can let his contract expire and get a longer deal for more money as a free agent under their Bird Rights?

Signing extensions is a thing of the past. A player's agent simply won't allow it.

At first, it muddled the Lakers' quest to land Howard as Lakers management was insisting D12 sign an extension if they traded for him.

Shrewdly, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has switched tact and is reportedly no longer demanding contract assurances from Howard in a possible trade.

And true to form, Kupchak is ahead of the curve.

The Lakers should be doing all they can to trade for Howard's Bird Rights.

Why? Let's look at how the Deron Williams signing unfolded.

After months of conjecture, Williams' possible destinations came down to two choices—the Dallas Mavericks and the Brooklyn Nets.

The Mavericks could only offer four years, $75 million to the free-agent point guard, whereas the Nets, with Williams' Bird Rights in hand, offered him a max five-year, $100 million deal.

Dallas was at a clear disadvantage without Williams' Bird Rights and ultimately lost out on their bid to the hometown offer from Brooklyn.

Williams is now a local hero in Brooklyn and is viewed by many as a loyal franchise player, but really he took the best offer for the most money.

Which brings us back to Howard.

Given the structure of the CBA and the advantage Bird Rights give a team when looking to re-sign a player, we already know that Howard will choose to become a free agent in 2013.

It's a no-brainer. He's a fool not to wait until 2013 to sign a max five-year deal as a free agent.

So when that time inevitably comes, the team with the best seat at the table is whoever holds Howard's Bird Rights. These are by far the best bargaining chips in contract negotiations.

If Kupchak can acquire Howard and his Bird Rights this summer, the Lakers can offer the best deal to their free-agent superstar and blow the 29 other NBA teams out of the water with their prime Bird Rights positioning.

After proclaiming last week that he'll only re-sign with the Brooklyn Nets, Howard has not made it clear if he wants to play for the Lakers.

These comments, of course, were issued in a pre-Nash era.

Now that Steve Nash is a Laker through 2015, the entire NBA landscape has changed, and Howard's perceptions of Los Angeles have likely followed suit.

If Howard does indeed get traded to the Lakers this summer, he'll have an easy decision to make when he becomes a free agent in 2013.

He'll have Hollywood.

He'll have Nash and Kobe.

He'll have the branding, the powerful media market and the championship success of Los Angeles to point to as reasons for staying with the Lakers.

But in any business—trade or sport—it all comes down to money, and the Lakers would be set up to offer him the best deal out there in 2013.

Kupchak already delivered one superstar to the Lakers this offseason using a CBA technicality. Don't be surprised if the Lakers' Rembrandt returns for an epic encore using similar tactics.