HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — A couple of truths: The largest pile of cash is not always the end-all for star players in free agency, and cap space and/or a glittery pedigree won’t trump an attractive roster in landing a star free agent.
In 2010, free agents LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade all took marginally less money to play together in Miami because they believed it gave them the best opportunity to win a championship or two or… three summers later Dwight Howard has passed on $118 million over five years to re-sign with the Los Angeles Lakers and will instead settle for the $88 million over four years the Houston Rockets could offer under the collective bargaining agreement.
A finally decisive Howard said he examined each of his five suitors’ rosters and determined that playing with 23-year-old All-Star James Harden and the rising Rockets offered better odds to win a title sooner than with Kobe Bryant and the aging Lakers or with anybody else.
“I’m betting $30 million on it,” Howard told ESPNLA.com on Friday night, referring to the difference in salary between what the Lakers and any other team could offer.
The evidence has long proved that money is the great closer. Athletes simply can’t leave cash on the table. Their careers are too short, too fragile to not reap every cent available.
Side note: An argument is correctly made that since some states such as California have a state income tax while other states such as Texas do not, that the net salaries are actually much closer. And one can surely contend that once a player such as Howard — or James or Wade or Bosh — has earned his first $100 million, the $30 million difference (on paper) over five years is relative, and lauding a multi-millionaire for accepting less is foolish.
Still, the larger dollar figure typically wins out. Al Jefferson‘s surprise move to Charlotte is just one example. But perhaps with today’s hyper-scrutinized star players whose legacies are ultimately going to be judged by championships — and Howard will be under pressure to deliver in Houston the same as if he stayed in L.A. — and are closely evaluating all of their choices.
“Financially, [I am] leaving that much money on the table, leaving a storied franchise,” Howard said. “But this is an opportunity for me to write my own story.”
The Dallas Mavericks hoped to win Howard’s services just as they wanted to secure Deron Williams‘ signature last summer. Williams chose to re-sign with the Brooklyn Nets and many suggested he chased the cash — the Nets’ $98 million compared to the $75 million the Mavs could pay — because Dallas by a long shot owned the more impressive track record.
But Howard came to the same conclusion as Williams after the Mavs pitched to both their impressive playoff run, an excellent coach and one of the league’s more aggressive and creative front offices. Neither player, however, saw enough pieces on the current roster to commit.
In an interview I did with Jason Kidd shortly after Williams re-signed with the Nets, Kidd, who spent the week leading up to free agency with Williams, stressed that Williams feared being left to go at it alone in the case Dirk Nowitzki went down with an injury.
Williams also liked the Nets’ addition of Joe Johnson during his free-agent meetings and this year he welcomes new teammates Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in joining Johnson and All-Star center Brook Lopez. In Houston, Howard and James are a potential dynamite duo for years to come. Harden’s acquisition was made possible by Houston general manager Daryl Morey‘s ability to ship veteran scorer Kevin Martin, 2012 lottery pick Jeremy Lamb and a couple of first-round picks to salary-cap-strapped Oklahoma City.
Cuban’s greatest miscalculation in stripping down his 2011 championship roster was not re-signing his greatest asset outside of Nowitzki in center Tyson Chandler. Cuban’s intention was to create the cap space to sign a star free agent in 2012 and ’13. Ultimately the Mavs’ cupboard was left bare of enticing established players and prospects, assets to either flip in a trade or to aid in attracting star players in free agency.
The Mavs and Lakers emphasized their past successes and the promise they’ll do it again. Howard, however, wasn’t shopping in the futures market.
The Mavs spent the last two years preparing to lure Howard, yet Golden State needed only a couple days to make a strong, late push because of its young, emerging roster. And when the Warriors successfully sent out expiring contracts and signed Andre Iguodala, they were positioned to give up a youthful talent in a sign-and-trade with the Lakers had Howard wanted in.
Of course, Houston and Golden State sputtered for years in the lottery acquiring high draft picks while Dallas battled in the playoffs the previous dozen seasons, and often used first-round picks in trades (while also taking on other teams’ bad contracts when necessary under the previous CBA’s softer tax penalties) to continually refresh the roster.
But the critical summer of 2013 has revealed that the Mavs unloaded too much to land a star and the Lakers got too old (among a bungled coaching change). Free-agent stars want to win today so suitors better come offering more than cap space and, as Howard just proved, more than a royal pedigree.