Why a Howard-for-Bynum trade needs to happen for Magic, Lakers
First things first, there's the Andrew Bynum pre-qualifier to deal with.
A half block away from the sparkly new Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., on West Church Street, there is a Bank of America. There are nine more banks and investment firms on the other side of Interstate 4, just two blocks away from where the Lakers' center might play someday.
Bynum, after all, was the one who, while discussing his uncertain basketball future at All-Star weekend in -- of all places -- Orlando, flippantly and famously said "there's a bank in every city." So now that we know the Magic fit that bill, and in light of the recent rumblings that Orlando center Dwight Howard still wants out even with the ousting of general manager Otis Smith and coach Stan Van Gundy, it's time to again raise the question of whether the most logical trade in the NBA rumor mill should be revisited. In a word: yes.
The Bynum-for-Howard deal needs to go down.
Much has changed for both teams since earlier this year, when trade talks about this scenario never progressed, in part because neither Howard nor Lakers star Kobe Bryant seemed ready to give up his alpha dog status. Despite the fact that the Lakers were on Howard's list of teams to which his agent, Dan Fegan, was given permission to explore a trade leading up to the March deadline (the others being New Jersey/Brooklyn and Dallas), sources close to Howard made it clear that the Lakers' inclusion was more of a leverage play than it was an actual statement that he would sign a long-term extension there.
"He wants to be Kobe Bryant," one source close to Howard told me in late February, "not be with Kobe Bryant."
Meanwhile, Bryant, according to numerous sources who spoke with Howard, sent a not-so-subtle message to the Magic big man that he would be welcome as long as he was willing to play third fiddle behind Kobe and power forward Pau Gasol. So the trade talks never heated up and Howard, after much vacillation, eventually exercised his $19.5 million option for next season.
But the dynamic has changed, and it's one of shared desperation at this point. Both Howard (whose Magic have lost in the first round two consecutive years, the latest with him sidelined because of back surgery) and Bryant (whose Lakers have back-to-back second-round exits) need each other now more than ever. Howard, 26, an eight-year veteran, is still searching for his first title, having fallen to Bryant's Lakers in his only NBA Finals appearance, in 2009. The 33-year-old Bryant, defiant, as always, at the end of the loss to Oklahoma City and well aware that Father Time just got louder still, must know deep down that he'll never get that sixth ring to tie Michael Jordan as long as this Lakers group remains the same.
As for Bynum? After the Lakers' Game 5 loss to the Thunder, Bynum -- whose $16.1 million team option for next season is expected to be picked up -- said of signing a possible extension with the Lakers, "I'm not sure. It really doesn't matter to me. I'll play anywhere."
Bynum later said that he preferred to stay with the Lakers, but his inconsistent play and increasingly sour attitude -- both publicly and privately -- make you wonder if he doesn't want out. He has been blunt and opinionated more than once this season, highlighting the Lakers' lack of ball movement, balance and dedication to playing inside-out while unofficially turning the spotlight on Bryant and his ball-pounding ways in the process.
According to one Lakers source, Bynum -- despite posting career highs in points (18.7), rebounds (11.8) and shot attempts (13.3) -- grew more vocal about his frustrations as the season wore on and was more prone to "acting out."
"He's getting worse," the source said.
That shouldn't come as a surprise considering the company he keeps. No one dominates an offense like Bryant. He was the runaway league leader with 23 field-goal attempts per game (Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant was second at 19.7), even as he shot his lowest percentage (43.0) since 1997-98 and worst three-point percentage (30.3) since 2001-02. The gap in shots between Bryant and the team's second-leading shot-taker (Gasol) was a league-leading 8.9 attempts, with only Minnesota coming close (8.7 difference between Kevin Love and Michael Beasley), Milwaukee ranking third (5.3 between Brandon Jennings and Drew Gooden) and the NBA average just 2.7.
Bynum, 24, could be freed and fed in Orlando. And Howard, whose dream of joining the hapless Nets is in limbo because of the looming free agency of friend and Nets point guard Deron Williams, could be part of a legitimate contender again while becoming the pre-eminent star of the Lakers' next generation. It's unclear whether the Magic would require more than Bynum in return for a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and former MVP runner-up. But barring a change of heart from Howard, Bynum may be their best chance at salvaging this situation.
The next few months will reveal plenty about both teams. The Magic's determination to keep Howard played a late part in Smith's and Van Gundy's dismissals this week, as sources said both men recommended that Howard be traded in the days leading up to their exits. Their shared view clashed with that of CEO Alex Martins, who, according to sources, remains confident that Howard can be persuaded to stay yet again. If not, however, then the likelihood is that teams that didn't appeal to Howard before -- like the Lakers, and perhaps even Chicago -- might become more acceptable.
For the Lakers, Williams could be a possibility if Howard is not. A source close to the three-time All-Star said he would be interested in joining the Lakers, though it would have to be via a sign-and-trade deal. (Lakers point guard Ramon Sessions, who was acquired from Cleveland at the trade deadline, has a $4.5 million player option for next season.) The source said Williams' preference, however, is for the Nets to improve the roster sufficiently enough that he can feel good about staying put rather than fear a repeat of this season, when they finished 22-44. As for Dallas, which sacrificed its best chance to defend the title by preserving salary-cap space last summer in anticipation of this free-agent class, the source said of the Mavericks: "There's no longevity there." If owner Mark Cuban can clear enough space to sign a worthy sidekick for Williams, though, then maybe Williams would join his hometown team after all.
Gasol might very well be the Lakers' big man on the move as opposed to Bynum, too. The 31-year-old still has very good value around the league, though the fact that he has two years and $38.3 million left on his contract could scare away the many teams that will be trying to shed salary in preparation for the more punitive luxury tax that begins after next season.
There's a bank in every city, but good luck banking on what's next for the Lakers or Magic. The smart money, as I see it, is for the Howard-Bynum swap to happen.