By Ben Golliver
Are we headed for an NBA trade deadline season with two Lakers big men on the block?
One day after coach Mike D'Antoni moved Pau Gasol to the bench, setting off the umpteenth round of trade speculation concerning the Spaniard, an ESPN.com report indicated that Dwight Howard's impatience with the Lakers' system during this disappointing season could wind up forcing management to investigate its options in advance of February's trade deadline. Howard, acquired from the Magic in a four-team blockbuster trade last summer, is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
The Los Angeles Lakers have consistently turned away trade inquiries in recent weeks for All-Star center Dwight Howard and still believe they have a strong chance of signing him to a new contract when Howard becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer, according to sources close to the situation.
But sources told ESPN.com this week that the Lakers might be forced to reconsider that position between now and the Feb. 21 trade deadline because of Howard's growing unhappiness with his role under coach Mike D'Antoni and the potential that raises for Howard leaving them in July without compensation.
Howard has not publicly indicated any desire to sign elsewhere when he becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1 and came to Los Angeles determined to succeed with a minimum amount of fuss after the hits he took image-wise during his drawn-out departure from the Orlando Magic. But sources say that Howard, as the Lakers' struggles have mounted, has dropped hints within team circles about his discomfort in D'Antoni's system and that he could consider moving on if things don't improve or change.
Howard spent much of the last two seasons at the center of trade rumors as he grew unhappy in Orlando, ultimately requesting a trade in hopes that he could play for a title contender. The Lakers began the season as one of the favorites to win the Western Conference but have stumbled to a 17-24 record and are currently outside the playoff picture.
Just as life with the Lakers hasn't exactly lived up to expectations for Howard, the All-Star center hasn't performed to his true capabilities this season. Howard is averaging 17.3 points and 12.5 rebounds, but his 20.0 PER is the lowest since his second season in the league and he seems to lack some of the explosiveness, flexibility and fearlessness he had before undergoing back surgery last season. Life as a No. 2 option has presented challenges, as Howard previously had dibs on the rock and has never played with a teammate like Kobe Bryant, who is currently averaging more than 22 shots per game.
At the season's halfway points, the Lakers remain the biggest underachievers in the league relative to their preseason expectations. That alone would be enough to fuel trade rumors on any team. Howard's recent past, full of waffling and moodiness, fans those flames.
Still, this report (thankfully) sits a few key steps away from an imminent move. To date, Howard has bottled up whatever frustrations he's feeling fairly well, something he wasn't able to do as his time in Orlando wore on. He has not yet requested a trade, to the best of anyone's knowledge, and he certainly hasn't done so publicly. He's stuck to his promise of not discussing his contract during the season and that's saved his organization some headaches.
On the management side, the Lakers need Howard in a very fundamental way and have plenty of reasons to believe (or at least hope) that he will commit to the franchise next summer. The Lakers have a history of winning, a willingness to spend, an attractive market, and a number of star players -- albeit ill-fitting at the moment -- on hand. That's a better package than what a vast majority of their competitors can offer in free agency. The Lakers are invested in making this work, too. They sacrificed real value to acquire him -- Andrew Bynum coming off of a career year -- and they would need to receive real value to part with him, as he represents the brightest spot of their mid to long-term future.
There are plenty of complications standing in the way of Los Angeles being able to receive that real value. For starters, Howard's desire to play for a contender, assuming that would still be in place, limits the available trade partners considerably. Interested parties from that group would then need to be convinced they could re-sign Howard in the summer, something that has been, even for the Lakers, a matter of total uncertainty. Suitors would also need to trust that Howard will be able to return to form or they would need to be willing to settle for his current level of output. There's also the matter of Howard's $19.5 million contract; like Gasol's, it's unwieldy and difficult to move without accepting back future salary, something the Lakers want to avoid to preserve what is shaping up to be a wide open cap position in July 2014. The best thing that could happen here, from the Lakers' standpoint, is a mini-run over the next few weeks that draws them within striking distance of the No. 8 seed. That would transform the collective mood from "this is hopeless and this season was a giant mistake" into "let's take our shot in the postseason and sort it out in the summer." If that run doesn't take place, prepare for a third consecutive season of Howard trade rumors.