HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — In the days, weeks and months leading up to the NBA Draft, the decision makers around the league play a revolving game of chess with agents about their players and where they might draft them, if at all.
It’s a complex, high-stakes game with very specific rules and constraints that only a select few play well enough to actually win. And even when they do win, we don’t find out about it sometimes for years.
Free agency, on the other hand, is a wicked venture that plays out every July, with the biggest stars holding most of the leverage and the desperate teams flush with cap space ready to do whatever it takes to win their favor. The winners and losers in free agency are revealed rather quickly. Spend wisely (like the Miami Heat three summers ago, with the aid of cap space and key sign-and-trade assets LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade on South Beach) and you can move into elite company immediately. Spend frivolously (see the Detroit Pistons’ 2009 summer of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva) and you’ll be making an annual date for the lottery.
That superstar list this summer is short, starting with the top unrestricted free agents Dwight Howard and Chris Paul, and falling to a second-tier that includes Josh Smith, David West, Andrew Bynum, Al Jefferson, Andre Iguodala, Paul Millsap, Monta Ellis, Manu Ginobili and others.
There is also an intriguing list of restricted free agent crop includes talents like Brandon Jennings, Jeff Teague, Nikola Pekovic, Tyreke Evans, Tiago Splitter and others that some teams with cap space will poke around at in an effort to fill out their rosters.
Because unlike the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics, whose blockbuster deal on Draft night changed both franchises dramatically before the July 1 start of free agency, not everyone was prepared to handle their heavy lifting in that manner.
With Doc Rivers fleeing the Boston rebuild for a championship chase in Los Angeles with the Clippers, that leaves Howard alone as the eye of this summer’s free agent storm. And he’s already reportedly set up a timetable of his own to have his future decided. July 10 is his decision day.
That leaves us with a distinctly different free agent landscape than we expected as recently as last weekend and the need for some clarity on exactly who and what will be in play July 1, as well as what teams figure to be the major players in the free agent sweepstakes …
DO THE MATH FIRST!
There are as many as 14 teams that could be $10 million under the salary cap, meaning there could be close to $300 million in collective cap space available for spending this summer. And that doesn’t include the sign-and-trade assets teams will have at their disposal to make deals.
That said, not every penny of that available cap space will be spent. But it’s out there. And you better believe the agents representing all of these free agents, restricted and unrestricted, have their designs on every penny.
THE IMPACT OF THE NEW CBA?
With so much money and so many teams flooding the market, the agents are counting on someone being willing to overpay. League rules require teams to spend 90 percent of the cap, the figure was $49.337 million for the 2012-13 season and is expected to rise $3 million more for the 2013-14 season.
Expect there to be more short-term deals instead of the long-term monster deals of the previous CBA that teams fretted over, seemingly always after the fact.
“It’s a different world than what everyone is used to,” said a longtime Eastern Conference executive. “Everybody has to wrap their head around a new way of doing things, we do and the players and their agents do, too. The ‘future’ used to mean four and five years down the road. Now it’s more like two and in some cases three years for the guys who don’t change your culture.”
THE FRANCHISES THAT WILL BE THE KEY PLAYERS FOR HOWARD …
Howard has already let it be known that two of the NBA’s Texas powers will get the first crack at selling him on leaving the Lakers, with the hometown Hawks also under consideration before finishing up with whatever pitch the Lakers make before his July 10 decision.
There is no indication that he will entertain recruiting/sales pitches from anyone else.
NBA’s com’s Fran Blinebury details what the Rockets and Mavericks are selling, while I take care of the Hawks. They all start with a baseline of the four-year, $89million maximum salary deal that any team (that isn’t the Lakers, who can offer a five-year, $118 million deal) with the available cap space can offer.
The closing scene for commissioner David Stern at the draft on Thursday night, when Hakeem Olajuwon came onstage to wrap him in a bear hug, might as well have been a direct message to Howard.
Houston thinks big.
Even in 1984, when the prize of Michael Jordan dangled in front of their eyes, the Rockets made the 6-foot-10 center Olajuwon the No. 1 pick in the draft. Now the franchise that has a linear history of All-Star centers from Moses Malone to Olajuwon to Yao Ming can offer Howard possibilities that are as big as all of Texas.
But the appeal of the Rockets is more than just history. It is a future filled with young talent a world of possibilities. There is not another landing spot for the big free agent that can instantly pair him up with a rising All-Star. James Harden did not just bring credibility back to the Houston franchise a year ago, he showed that he is one of the unstoppable scoring forces in the league and possesses that right stuff to rank with any offensive forces in the league, including those named LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
While Howard wants to be known and used and marketed and paid as a “franchise player,” in Houston he would not have to do it alone. He could play off Harden’s slashing ability and his excellent passing skills to once more be a scoring monster in the paint. While he would still be forced to fit in with a rehabbing Kobe Bryant and an aging Steve Nash with the Lakers, in Houston everything would be geared around him.
The Rockets can also offer a coach in Kevin McHale who comes with a Hall of Fame resume and perhaps the best low post fundamentals for a big men in the history of the game. McHale has been champing at the bit to play a game with an inside force, and would be an excellent teacher to tap into Howard’s skills and take him to the next level. What’s more, if Howard seeks more high level knowledge and assistance, Olajuwon still lives in the neighborhood and could provide occasional one-on-one tutorials.
There is also the benefit of Houston itself: a laid-back, but dynamic locale that is the fourth-largest city in the United States, but does not have the white-hot glare of living in the Hollywood spotlight. Howard could recapture some of the relative peace and quiet that he once had in Orlando, while not at all sacrificing his chance to play for NBA titles. The Rockets already have a pair of championship trophies in their case and are ready to think big again.
If it’s all about bells and whistles and having the red carpet rolled out for Howard, nobody does the welcoming thing better than Mark Cuban.
If it’s about being made to feel that you are the biggest, shiniest, best new thing in the world, no place on the planet does that better than Big D.
Remember America’s Team? Howard could be America’s Center in Dallas and you can be sure that Cuban will spare no expense and spend every waking breath to proclaim it.
What’s more, if the goal is to pair up with another All-Star who could get him back to the NBA Finals and contending for a championship the fastest, Howard couldn’t find a more willing playing partner than Dirk Nowitzki.
While a 35-year-old Nowitzki is closer to the end of his career than 23-year-old James Harden in Houston, it means that Dirk and the Mavs have a greater sense of urgency than the Rockets. As soon as Howard signs on in Dallas, Cuban and team president Donnie Nelson will move heaven and earth to put the supporting cast in place.
Nowitzki has the experience and the know-how that it takes to win a championship. He understands the situation and at this point in his career, is willing to make the sacrifices to his own game to win another title. Dirk has won an MVP award in the regular season and The Finals and is not seeking individual accolades, just one more sip of champagne before retirement. A year after his game was curtailed following knee surgery, he’ll be back to his old tricks, which would mesh perfectly with a dominant inside force. With their size and their complementary styles, there might not be a better instant fit for Howard anywhere in the league. Playing with an accommodating Dirk could be more appealing to Howard than trying to sync up in Houston with a guard (Harden) who needs the ball in his hands.
Dirk’s advancing age also means that in just a few short years he’ll step aside, leaving Howard to stretch out inside the throne room of the franchise at a time when he’ll still be young enough for Cuban to reload. It is said that Howard likes the idea of having the baton passed to him. In addition, the Mavs could still have cap room in the summer of 2014 to pursue his next running mate.
When healthy, Howard is also the most dominant defensive force in the NBA and few coaches in the league place more of a premium and do a better job emphasizing and coaching defense than Rick Carlisle. Think back to what Carlisle was able to do with Tyson Chandler as the anchor in the middle when the Mavs went on their championship march in 2011. Then consider that Howard is a quantum leap forward as a defender.
Two years after blowing up his own championship team by allowing too many of the pieces to walk for financial reasons, Cuban has owned up to the mistake and is back in the business of trying to make a big splash by using his big, oversized personality.
If it’s about being made to feel special, nobody does that better than Cuban and Dallas.
The Hawks are hoping that the tug of home will give Howard reason to pass on the headaches and pressures in Los Angeles and skip both sites on that Texas two-step and become the face of the franchise just miles away from where he grew up in Southwest Atlanta, something Hawks general manager Danny Ferry would love to see happen.
There is no storied, championship history or Hall of Fame big man legacy for Howard to carry on here. But how big would he be if he were to come home and lead the Hawks to championship heights? He’d rank as the greatest athlete to call Atlanta home and rank somewhere right behind Martin Luther King Jr. on the list of Atlanta’s most beloved sons.
The Hawks boast a new coach, Mike Budenholzer, whose spent the past 17 years immersed in a system that should be the model for how to play to an elite big man’s strengths. The Spurs crafted their dynasty around Hall of Famer David Robinson first and then Tim Duncan after him. If Howard thinks the Lakers, under Mike D’Antoni, didn’t use him properly this season, he’d have no worries in a Budenholzer-crafted system that would revolve around him.
There is no ensemble cast already in place for Howard to join, no new set of oversized expectations for him to try to live up to if he were to come back to his hometown franchise, which is starting for a superstar anchor to lead them to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference standings. The Hawks offer a near blank canvas to work with on the roster, meaning they will fill out a crew that complements Howard the way his supporting cast in Orlando did when they played for a championship in 2009.
A fresh start in a familiar place could also come with some familiar faces as well. Howard and Hawks center/power forward Al Horford battled for years while playing competing against one another in the Southeast Division. They could be the devastating a 1-2 punch in the post that Howard and Pau Gasol never were with the Lakers. And if Howard really wants to have someone he trusts watching his back, he could suggest Ferry make sure that his pre-school classmate and longtime friend Josh Smith not be allowed to escape via free agency himself. That’s a frontline trio that would rival any other group in the league, including that crew in Brooklyn.
Howard’s insistence on not going somewhere and joining someone else’s team can only be fulfilled in one place, the only place he could truly call home.
Howard is obviously not the only free agent target on the market, but until his July 10 decision (that’s his date, not anything being placed on him by an outside entity) he will remain the most scrutinized individual on the market. And rightfully so, because no matter how much damage you think he has done to his own brand and reputation with his actions of the past year and a half, the seven-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of Year remains the most intriguing big man talent in the league (when healthy).
And if you don’t believe it, just watch how these organizations mentioned above go all out in competing for his favor the second the free agency period kicks off at 12:01 a.m. ET on July 1.