Dwight Howard is taking over the basketball world one summer at a time. After last year's never-ending saga that resulted in him putting on a Los Angeles Lakers uniform, we're now waiting to see if he'll change jerseys once more.
If he does, it'll be by signing as a free agent. The Lakers will never complete a sign-and-trade that sends D12 to another team. And last I checked, it was impossible to sign-and-trade a player to the same location they were already in.
Five potential options have been lurking during the early portion of the offseason. Howard can remain with the Lakers, or he can sign with the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks or Golden State Warriors. The last would require a sign-and-trade, which essentially eliminates it from the list of possibilities.
Normally, a sign-and-trade is a fantastic option for teams looking to receive talent in return for a player they're sure to lose. It's a way to at least get something, which is usually better than nothing.
Take the Hawks, for example.
Once general manager Danny Ferry is certain that he wants to jettison Josh Smith, he'll turn to a sign-and-trade deal, hoping that he can get a team like the Rockets to give him a few of their many assets. By doing so, the Rockets can offer Smoove an extra year and more money, since he'd technically be signing with his original team. It benefits the player and the team giving him up, while the team receiving him obviously gets the most coveted asset.
The Lakers, however, are no normal team. Plus, they're in a bit of a unique situation.
Even though the Dubs could offer them some intriguing players in return, it's still in the team's best interest to let Howard walk rather than trading him away and getting something back.
The Offer Itself
Even on the surface, a sign-and-trade deal isn't going to be very appealing for the Lakers. It's tough to find fair value that teams are actually willing to give up.
Take a second and remember just how dominant Howard can be.
The big man led the NBA in rebounding during the 2012-13 season while playing with a back so injured following surgery that he was wearing a compression shirt to keep everything in place. Howard also provided quite a few offensive contributions, and he was a superb defender even while his mobility was limited to the point that he had to play with his hands rather than his feet.
D12 was an All-Star while he was injured and recovering from an offseason procedure.
When he's healthy, he's one of the five best basketball players in the world and functions as the rare dominant big man in a league that has constantly rewarded the top centers throughout its history with chances to hold up the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
As ESPN's Chris Palmer makes perfectly clear, this is something that Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak is well aware of:
Hate on Howard personally all you want. That's your prerogative. But to deny the impact he makes on a basketball court is foolish.
How many teams can give fair return for this type of player?
According to sources, the Warriors are willing to offer Andrew Bogut along with Klay Thompson or Harrison Barnes. But the sell is to lure Dwight Howard with the prospect of a loaded lineup that features Curry, Thompson AND Barnes. The Warriors could trade Bogut and the expiring contracts of Richard Jefferson or Andris Biedrins to give the Lakers major cap relief heading into next offseason. Golden State, which can only sign Howard via sign-and-trade, believes that is the best offer Los Angeles will receive.
If the Lakers traded Howard for Andrew Bogut and either Klay Thompson or Harrison Barnes, they'd be making a move akin to giving up a dollar for a quarter and a nickel. Both returning players would be valuable, but each pales in comparison to the league's best true center.
Receiving Barnes is the better option for L.A., and despite his breakout toward the end of the year and in the postseason, he remains well shy of Howard in the value department. The chances of him ever becoming a bona fide MVP candidate who can single-handedly carry a team into the NBA Finals aren't just slim...
Barnes is a great player—a valuable young wing with tons of long-term potential. But he's still limited and nowhere near reaching his full potential. At last glance, the NBA's history is littered with high-upside guys who never reached the levels that fans once thought they could reach.
Let's go back to that Thompson quote up above. Here's the final sentence for you one more time:
Golden State, which can only sign Howard via sign-and-trade, believes that is the best offer Los Angeles will receive.
Putting aside the fact that most teams tend to think their offer is the best one, is this really the top offer that the Lakers can receive for Howard? An injury-prone center, an expiring contract and a potential-laden wing player?
That's certainly not a fair return for Howard, but it's something. And something is usually better than nothing.
Just not for the Lakers, due to two snags.
Trading Within the Division
Seeing superstars traded within the division isn't a frequent occurrence in the NBA. Or professional sports in general, for that matter.
The Lakers would love to see Howard go to one of 25 different teams, but the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns aren't going to be included in that group. After all, those four organizations join the Lake Show in the Pacific Division.
While L.A. plays just as many games against the rest of their division as they do versus the rest of the Western Conference, making an intra-division trade allows Dwight to make the Lakers' path to the playoffs more difficult.
If one of the Pacific teams gets stronger, it correspondingly grows harder for the Purple and Gold to advance into the postseason. Only a finite number of teams from each division can win enough games to make it to the playoffs.
The 2012-13 season was an aberration, as the Lakers aren't typically content to finish third in their division and barely have a chance to play more than 82 games. Usually, first-place finishes are the goal, and top seeds are the result.
Both the Clippers and Warriors finished ahead of the turmoil-ridden Lakers in 2012-13. LAC continues to look like a stronger team going into the follow-up campaign, and a sign-and-trade with the Dubs would ensure that they do as well.
However, that's not the biggest reason.
Too Much Money
Unless the Lakers can land a star player, they'd rather not take on any money before the 2014 offseason. As you might have heard by now, the free-agent class will be absolutely stacked next summer.
Luol Deng, Dirk Nowitzki, Andrew Bogut, Danny Granger, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Kyle Lowry will all be unrestricted free agents. Derrick Favors, DeMarcus Cousins, Larry Sanders, Eric Bledsoe, Paul George and Greg Monroe will join them, just in the restricted category.
Most importantly, the list of players who can opt out of contracts and hit the open market reads like a who's who of NBA stars: LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Zach Randolph, Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire, Tim Duncan and Rudy Gay.
Does that make it pretty clear why it's important to have money to spend in 2014?
Right now, the Lakers most certainly do. Mitch Kupchak has maneuvered the roster so that only one player is under contract for the 2014-15 season: Steve Nash. And as he'll be turning 40 years old before next offseason, there's always a chance he could retire and leave the books completely empty.
This changes if the Lakers can sign a superstar like Dwight, but they want to have as much financial flexibility in 2014 as possible. That way they can go after the market's top players without fear of the luxury-tax threshold and the dreaded repeater's tax that they'd suddenly become subject to.
Re-signing Kobe will also be a priority next offseason, which means that L.A. already has less room to spend on free agents. The more remaining cap space, the better.
For most teams, completing a sign-and-trade is a preferable alternative to letting a major free agent walk away, leaving the pockets of his old team empty in the process.
But since when have the Lakers been like most teams?