Dwight Howard has said he’ll opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Otis Smith, Orlando’s general manager, has said he won’t trade Howard and believes the NBA’s best center can be persuaded to re-up with the Magic. Other NBA clubs won’t sit around and wait. They’ll make offers for Howard.
Should the Hawks make an offer?
They could make a tantalizing one: Al Horford and Kirk Hinrich for Howard and power forward Ryan Anderson. That’s an All-NBA center (third team) with a Florida background who’s under contract through 2016 for a reasonable $12 million per season and a useful guard whose contract expires in 2012. The Magic could make something of that.
Or this: Josh Smith and Marvin Williams for the same two Magic men. That’s two starters — we’ll say for the sake of argument that Williams still qualifies — who are 25 years old and who are under contract through at least 2013. That’s not bad, either.
If you’re Otis Smith and you’re facing the possibility of losing your franchise player for nothing — the Magic lost Shaquille O’Neal to the Lakers the same way, the announcement coming in the Reebok tent in downtown Atlanta the day before the 1996 Olympics opened — you’d have to listen. Even if you’d rather not trade Howard to a team in your division, wouldn’t you have to listen?
For the Hawks, the trickiest part wouldn’t be the trade but the follow-through. Even if he changed teams, Howard’s contract wouldn’t change: He’d still be eligible to exit next summer. That possibility would be even more chilling for the Hawks than for the Magic. Orlando would lose only Howard; the Hawks would lose Howard plus Horford/Smith and Hinrich/Williams.
The Hawks would be leveraging their future on this question: Could we, in one season’s time, convince Howard that his hometown is the place for him to win his championship and this is the organization that will commit all necessary resources toward the betterment of the team?
We can accuse the Magic of many things, but we can’t say they haven’t spent. Owner Rich DeVos paid nearly $90 million for his roster this past season, an outlay that, according to Zach McCann of the Orlando Sentinel, put the Magic fifth in all of sports in average salary per man. The top four clubs: Real Madrid and Barcelona of Spanish soccer, the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Magic have a new arena and played to 102.6 percent of capacity last season. The Hawks played to 83.6 percent of Philips Arena’s capacity, ranking 22nd among 30 NBA teams in average attendance. The Atlanta Spirit recently rid itself of the Thrashers, and money from the sale of the hockey club could mean that ownership might be willing to exceed the new luxury tax — it’s being debated in the NBA labor talks — to keep Howard.
Howard is set to make $17 million next season. Whatever the new maximum number is, that’s what he’ll get. And if a team has Howard and Joe Johnson each making around $20 million — plus Horford/Smith at $12 or $13 million — you’ve put yourself in the Miami Heat class of salary imbalance. You’ve devoted three-fourths of your payroll to one-fifth of your roster.
Would Howard be worth such massive machinations? Yes. He has led the Magic to the NBA finals. He’s an offensive force, sure, and an even better defender and rebounder. But having Howard would require that the Hawks change their offense, which yielded little beyond jump shots last season, to a more post-oriented scheme. Could Is0-Joe co-exist with Superman? Would Josh Smith be given the freedom to roam on defense with an even bigger man behind him?
These are unknowns. What seems a given is that the Hawks as constituted aren’t any closer to the Eastern Conference finals, not with Derrick Rose in Chicago and Miami’s Big Three intact. (If Jamal Crawford leaves as a free agent, it might be Round 1 and done.) This trade would make the Hawks a real player in the East for the next 12 months, but it could turn into a one-year rental on the order of Mark Teixeira to the Braves with even worse ramifications.
But you out there who’ve clamored for the Hawks to be bold, to spend big (just not so big on Joe Johnson!) and to land a True Center above all … well, this would accomplish all of the above for at least a year. It would be daring, and general manager Rick Sund isn’t known for taking dares. But it would make the 2011-2012 Hawks worth watching, and it’d darn sure sell a few tickets.
By Mark Bradley