By Bryan Chu
COMMENTARY | As the Los Angeles Lakers continue their downward spiral, having lost five straight games, now is the time to stop pointing fingers and start thinking future.
It's not time to trade Pau Gasol.
It's not time to fire Mike D'Antoni.
It's time to trade Dwight Howard.
Yes, I said it.
Granted there are a host of reasons - not named Howard -- as to why the Lakers are struggling. D'Antoni's system. Lack of defense. Players' motivation and self-determination. Scarcity in sharpshooters. Age. But, the real alarming situation is Howard, both short and long-term.
Yes, I understand Howard is expected to be the face of the Lakers franchise once Kobe Bryant retires. I understand how he fits into a long heritage of dominant Hall-of-Fame centers in Los Angeles. I understand he fits into the Hollywood scene. I understand there's a dearth of quality centers in the NBA and that he is only 27. I get all that, but ultimately, the Lakers and Howard don't mesh and Los Angeles needs to move sooner rather than later.
Here are the top three reasons why.
#1: Risk of Howard leaving as a free agent
Can the Lakers stomach it if Howard pulls a LeBron James or a Chris Bosh? Howard could easily quell Laker nation's uneasiness by signing a contract extension. He could save himself the headache of answering questions about where he's going to play next season. He can avoid other Laker players from being peppered with questions on if and when Howard will sign. Dwightmare struck once in Orlando; a repeat episode is looming in Los Angeles. As the Lakers continue their losing ways, Howard may begin to think the Lakers chances of winning a championship in the near future is closing.
Dwight watch begins today: 43 days and counting
Howard has said from day one that he anticipates to test the market after this season. Remember, he originally wanted to be traded to the Brooklyn Nets, not the Lakers. What makes you think after going through the circus of two coaches in less than a month, drama in Los Angeles, and seeing a different Los Angeles team in the same arena having fun and winning that he would want to stay with the Lakers?
The dissension and discontent is palpable. There was the supposed scuffle between Bryant and Howard. Maybe another case of Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal brewing? Also, after the Lakers were dismantled by the Los Angeles Clippers, 107-102, on Jan 4, Howard said, "Look at the difference between our team and theirs. They just play together. They share the ball. Everybody's excited when something happens. We have to be like that to be a great team." I liken this to dating. One partner is supposed to be in a committed relationship but starts to have a wondering eye. One party is attracted by another and tells the significant other, "you need to be more like THAT if we're going to work." Doesn't work in real life. Doesn't work in basketball. Won't work for either the Lakers or Howard.
It's difficult for megastars to coexist, especially when they both demand the ball. This is Bryant's team (and it seems he still has plenty in the tank) and it always has been. In the Black Mamba's own vernacular: He always eats first.
#2: Howard's Health
Leg numbness after back surgery is never a good thing. A torn or separated labrum can't help either. At first glance, Howard's numbers don't deviate far from his norm (17.3 points per game on 56.9 percent shooting, 12.4 rebounds, 2.6 blocks), but he clearly isn't 100 percent. His reaction time is slow on help defense, he doesn't have that explosion and his motor is sputtering when he tries to beat his man up and down the floor. Who knows how long, or if ever, it will take until he's the Howard of old. This is the same All-Star center who played in all but three games in his first six seasons, and has now missed 34 games the last three years.
Howard is supposed to anchor the defense as a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, but instead the Lakers are 26th on defense, giving up 101 points per game.
NBA analytics guru Dr. Wayne Winston, a professor at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business who has done consulting work for NBA teams in the past most notably the Dallas Mavericks, calculates the effectiveness of a player per 48-minute game by taking the raw plus/minus and adjusting it with the other nine players on the court. His analysis also adjusts for the strength of the opponent. The numbers show that the Lakers are better with Howard out of the lineup than they are when he is in. Against the average NBA lineup, the Lakers are two points better when Howard is in, but three points better when he is out. Note, Gasol hasn't been the issue (as much). When Gasol is in, the Lakers are four points better than the average NBA team, but are even when he is out. When Bryant and Metta World Peace are in, the Lakers are nine points better and when out they are 15 points worse. When Steve Nash is in, they are 10 points better and when out one point. In short, Howard, when playing, doesn't have as much of a positive impact on the team as the other starters do.
#3: D'Antoni Dilemma
D'Antoni has a three-year guaranteed contract with a team option in the fourth year. It would take a lot for the Lakers to hand D'Antoni his walking papers, especially with firing coach Mike Brown after a dismal 1-4 start to the season. So, for now, D'Antoni doesn't appear to be going anywhere.
The problem is Howard doesn't fit in a D'Antoni type offense. D'Antoni has never had a true big man with just a low post game outside of when O'Neal played for him in the Suns. That experiment failed. D'Antoni has always had shooters to compliment Nash. On the Lakers there's only Bryant and Jodie Meeks. To D'Antoni, it's all about outscoring your opponent and little on defense. That doesn't suit this type of roster. That doesn't suit Howard's game.
So if it's time to trade Howard where exactly could he land? Here are the five most likely homes (in order) for Howard based on feasibility.
#1: Atlanta Hawks
Power forward Josh Smith won't sign an extension with the Hawks. He's made it clear that he wants to be a free agent after this season, so he can sign a five-year deal. It doesn't mean he will leave for sure, but it opens up the possibility that he bolts, a risk that the Lakers are facing with Howard as well.
The Lakers could trade Howard ($19.5m), point guard Chris Duhon ($3.5m) and center Robert Sacre ($0.47m) for Smith ($13.2 m) and sharpshooters Kyle Korver ($5m) and Anthony Morrow ($4m). Smith, Korver and Morrow are free agents after this season. Note, the Lakers have had their eyes on Hawk players before. Atlanta reportedly nixed a deal last season that saw Los Angeles looking to trade Gasol for Smith and Korver.
The big question is whether or not Howard would be willing to sign a long-term contract, which is the caveat for any team that trades for him. But, don't forget Howard has a connection to the area. He was born in Atlanta, Georgia and went to SW Atlanta Christian Academy in the area. It also helps that the Lakers would be shipping Howard off to another conference.
#2: Sacramento Kings
Center DeMarcus Cousins isn't growing up any faster. The highly-talented 22 year old has had his fair share of suspensions and trouble while playing in a Kings uniform. This season alone he has been suspended three times in a span of two months for "unprofessional behavior and conduct detrimental to the team," striking O.J. Mayo in the groin during a loss at Dallas on Dec. 10, and confronting Spurs announcer Sean Elliott in a "hostile manner" following a loss at San Antonio on Nov. 9.
Cousins, who earns $3.8m this season, has two more years remaining on his rookie contract ($11.4m the next two years) and is a restricted free agent in 2014-15. Sacramento has squashed any talks of trading Cousins, including most recently reports stating Cousins is not on the trading block. Something tells me if Howard is in the conversation, the Kings would change their stance as long as Howard sign a long-term deal. Interestingly enough, Cousins fired his agent John Greig and is now represented by Dan Fegan, who happens to be Howard's agent.
A package of Cousins plus shooter Marcus Thornton ($7.5m this season, $16.6m owed the next two years) or Tyreke Evans ($5.2m, $6.9m as a restricted free agent next season) would be in the ballpark of Howard with another player thrown in. Also, this makes sense for Sacramento because now they have a bona fide megastar to be the face of the franchise when the city ushers in a new arena. I can't imagine Cousins and his reputation and brand being the focal point of a franchise.
For the Lakers, there's only upside with Cousins. He is arguably the most dominant true offensive center and will only get better. As far his maturity issues, Cousins will have Bryant to take him under his wing.
#3: Dallas Mavericks
If the Lakers allow Howard to test free agency the first team to approach Howard will undoubtedly be the
Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki.Mavericks. Dallas will be way under the cap next year with only $27.8m guaranteed on the books ($22.7m of which goes to Dirk Nowitzki).
If the Lakers do trade Howard, the only piece that may interest the Lakers is Dirk Nowitzki. While the Nowitzki has played his entire 15-year NBA career with the Mavericks don't think for a second he won't seek another opportunity. Nowitzki told ESPN recently that he envisions himself staying a Maverick, but that if he were to be chasing a championship his "last two years or whatever like (Gary) Payton and (Karl) Malone did when they went (to the Lakers) with Kobe and Shaq. Something like that, maybe I could have seen myself doing at the end."
So, why not with the Lakers? While Nowitzki does fit into D'Antoni's system and being reunited with Steve Nash would be kismet, the reality is Nowitzki turns 35 in June and is coming off of right-knee surgery. If Nowitzki can prove he's healthy then maybe the Lakers entertain the idea.
#4: Utah Jazz
What makes the Jazz a safe bet to begin negotiations with is that the Jazz has three stars who become free agents next season in forward Paul Millsap ($8.6m), point guard Mo Williams ($8m) and combo forward/center Al Jefferson ($15m). Utah, which only has $17.8m guaranteed, will be desperate to move one, two or three of these players as it will likely not be able to re-sign all three. Two issues may prevent this from happening, however. Howard's willingness to sign long-term in Utah and whether a combination of Millsap, Williams or Jefferson fit in Los Angeles.
#5: Minnesota Timberwolves
Similar to that of Utah, Minnesota is not a destination spot for most NBA players, so the potential risk behind renting Howard for half the season wouldn't whet the Wolves' appetite. Nevertheless, the one piece that Minnesota has that the Lakers would be interested in is Kevin Love.
The only way this works is if Love demands a trade and states he will not resign with Minnesota and will exercise his player option come the 2015-16 season. Granted, he just signed a four-year, $62 million extension last January, but it's not farfetched that the former UCLA standout would do this. He has already hinted the past two seasons that he isn't satisfied with the Timberwolves organization. Love wants to win now, and he's made it clear to the organization that it needs to put talent around him. Love, however, doesn't have much bargaining power because he still has two more guaranteed seasons on his contract, and the Timberwolves could hold him for the next two seasons and placate him with additional pieces. And to top it off this season has been horrible for Love, who broke his right hand twice in four months and has missed nearly half of this season.
Needless to say, for the Lakers, Love would be a perfect fit in D'Antoni's system.
Bryan Chu is a multi-award winning journalist who has covered the Los Angeles Lakers for NBA.com and worked as a sports and criminal justice reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News and the Albany Times Union. During his career, the Los Angeles native has covered everything from Jeremy Lin (pre and post Linsanity) to Lance Armstrong. He is currently pursuing an MBA in brand management and business analytics at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business and will return to Los Angeles in the fall to be a marketing associate at Nestlé USA