Could Dwight Howard
be headed out of L.A. already? (Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images)
By Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: assessing a report from earlier this week that the Lakers may have to consider dealing Dwight Howard before the Feb. 21 trade deadline because of his unhappiness with coach Mike D'Antoni's system and because the team's struggles could lead him to leave Los Angeles as a free agent this summer.
1. How badly do the Lakers need to trade Dwight Howard, on a a scale of 1 (no need whatsoever) to 10 (must trade him)?
Rob Mahoney: 1. I can appreciate how costly it would be if Howard opts to bolt in free agency after the season. I just don't see how a frenzied, failed regular season is reason enough to bail on the star that could lead the franchise for the next half-decade, much less how any recent events necessitate that the Lakers trade him. This team has crumbled at the feet of expectation, and Howard -- with everything from his general attitude to his slighter defensive form -- has been party to that. But trading him when his market value is at its lowest because of his injured back and impending free agency doesn't make sense. I think I'll wait it out with the All-NBA center having a down year attributable to injury.
Ben Golliver: I'll bump that up to a 2 or a 3. I agree that we're still in the "chill out, don't overreact" stage of this soap opera, but there's a nagging issue: Howard's relationships -- or lack thereof -- with the Lakers' key personalities.
Whether you choose to believe the rumors that Howard and Kobe Bryant have exchanged words in team meetings or argued after games, the on-court evidence and Bryant's public statements indicate the two still haven't reached an understanding about their respective roles on offense. Steve Nash and Howard promised to be one of the most dynamic pick-and-roll pairings in the NBA and their joie de vivre was supposed to power a new "Showtime" era. Hasn't happened. Howard's recent gripes about his touches -- for which he's since apologized -- and the fact that D'Antoni will never take Howard's preferred "inside-out" offensive approach suggest a potentially unresolvable tension. The failure of the Howard/Pau Gasol pairing has led to the marginalization and benching of the Spaniard.
Howard isn't to blame fully for all of this but he bears some responsibility, and it's worth noting that sometimes players -- and their personalities or egos -- can simply be too big to fit in as a puzzle piece rather than as a centerpiece. In recent years, Howard has wanted it both ways: He's wanted to play on a ready-build contender while also receiving the benefits of being that team's main man. In Orlando, the supporting pieces weren't to his liking; in Los Angeles, the tension arises from sacrifices he's not accustomed to making.
The Lakers can move Gasol to clear the way in the post and they can even fire D'Antoni and install a coach who features Howard to a greater degree. That would still leave questions about Howard's fit with the Lakers' guards and the larger question of whether he has the right combination of game and personality around which to build a title contender. The point here: Keeping Howard could require acceding to him in such a fashion that trading him would start to look preferable. Because of his lingering back issue and the relatively small amount of time he's had to find his way, it's still too early to completely write off Howard's fit in L.A. But it's not too early for Lakers management to start having serious doubts, and that's worth bumping this out of "no trade whatsoever" territory.
2. Which teams should have the most interest in acquiring Howard and is there an "ideal" landing spot?
Ben Golliver: Trading for Howard in good conscience right now requires so many attributes from an executive and his organization. First, a trust that Howard will return to his full form or a willingness to accept his current production. Second, the ability to immediately spend money -- perhaps gobs of it -- to build the contender Howard demands. Third, a smooth tongue to persuade him to re-sign this summer and the endless patience that negotiation will surely require. Fourth, a coach in place -- or at least in mind -- with enough credibility to get the most out of Howard on both ends. Fifth, a winning culture and structure in place that will appease Howard over the long haul. Sixth, the cojones to buy low on one of the best players in the league (assuming good health) and the assets to craft a package that makes it worth the Lakers' while.
That list eliminates virtually every single team in the NBA in one way or another. At the risk of going amateur Zen master, I would say that the ideal landing spot for Howard can be found within himself. The Lakers still offer a talented roster of teammates, a commitment to and a history of winning, a desirable market to attract new talent and extraordinarily deep pockets to max out his contract and meet his every wish. The ideal landing spot is Los Angeles, it seems, if Howard can see the bigger picture. If not L.A., then the usual suspects -- Brooklyn, Dallas and Houston -- would seem to make up the short list of alternatives.
Rob Mahoney: By default, the teams with the most interest should be those convinced that they could potentially re-sign Howard. No teams on the contending bubble should gut their current cores for a Howard rental, and no lottery teams should cobble a package together banking on him to return. That essentially leaves us with three teams, all of which have been suggested as potential free-agent destinations: Dallas, Houston and Atlanta.
Of the three, I find Houston to be the most interesting, though for reasons that apparently fly in the face of what Howard holds near and dear about basketball. In the Rockets' hypothetical, Howard could be something of a souped-up Omer Asik -- mobile and dominant defensively (assuming his back problems aren't debilitating to his career), while far more potent in the pick-and-roll on offense. James Harden and Jeremy Lin could get Howard easy finishes in the lane, and the supporting cast in Houston is largely composed of the kinds of spot shooters and hustle players who make for effective Howard complements.
The only problem is that Howard has proved averse to that very style of basketball, as evidenced by his thoughtless belly-aching for post-up after post-up. Don't get me wrong: Feeding Howard on the block is a decent option, and his back-to-the-basket repertoire is more effective than many would have you believe. But repetitive post-ups just don't make sense as a team's default offense anymore -- not with the revolution of court spacing that has turned the high pick-and-roll into such an effective and versatile a weapon, and not with Howard so incapable of converting the free throws that come from his attempts down low.
In theory, Houston could give Howard a young team to grow and win with, a coach who appreciates the post in Kevin McHale and a team that could feed him by the bucket-full in pick-and-roll situations. But if Howard gets moody over having to run high screens for Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, why would he be any more amenable to doing so for Harden and Lin?
Pau Gasol has lost his spot in Mike D'Antoni's starting lineup. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
3. How much should Pau Gasol factor into the Lakers' thought process regarding Howard's future?
Rob Mahoney: Quite a bit. The fates of Howard and Gasol are ultimately intertwined. Howard's presence and D'Antoni's mismanagement make Gasol's position on the team precarious, as evidenced by the recent decision to move him to the bench. But Gasol is the Lakers' insurance policy should Howard decide to leave this summer. That confluence makes it difficult to suss out the optimal course of action, though I think I've made it rather clear where I stand in regard to the Lakers trading Howard. Ruling out that possibility would then leave Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss to sift through the possible trade scenarios for Gasol or else come to terms with the notion of keeping him/incomprehensibly relying on Earl Clark to fill out the starting lineup. These are strange times indeed.
I'm still in favor of L.A. standing pat. As Grantland's Zach Lowe pointed out in his discussion with Bill Simmons, the Lakers' presumed starting five of Nash, Bryant, Metta World Peace, Gasol and Howard hasn't played together all that much this season. It may seem clear that Howard and Gasol are incompatible, but can we really be so sure when the optimal Lakers lineup has shared the court for just 134 minutes?* Trading Gasol would be accepting that group's inefficiencies as absolute fact, and would likely leave the team with an altogether less valuable package of players. I wouldn't be willing to engage in that enterprise, especially when Howard and Gasol have been operating with nonexistent chemistry thus far, and D'Antoni can do a far better job of managing both his rotation and his team's operations.
*To put things in perspective, the Thunder's starting lineup has played 661 minutes together this season, per NBA.com.
Ben Golliver: Call me crazy, but I've more or less given up on Gasol in Los Angeles. No player looks more miserable in his current situation than poor Pau and he's right to feel both aggrieved by this season's developments and shocked by his diminished role. While he's absolutely the insurance policy should Howard depart, he no longer represents much of a consolation prize, and that's especially true if D'Antoni remains the coach.
I think the Lakers are best off treating their two big men individually. My strategy between now and the trade deadline would be to vigorously shop Gasol and part ways with him if a reasonable offer can be found. Of course, the target package would be some combination of younger and more athletic players and financial flexibility. If such a match can't be found, that's not the end of the world. Meanwhile, I would be whispering as many sweet nothings into Howard's ear as possible, pushing whatever positive reinforcement buttons are needed to remind him what the Lakers offer to a player of his caliber and star power, regardless of the day-to-day struggles of this season. I have a feeling that approach will be sufficient to persuade him to re-sign. There's a developing sense that the Lakers and Howard, even if an ill-fitting match, might just be stuck with each other.