Three months ago, the whole Dwight Howard situation appeared to be one with a vast number of moving parts -- one that could not easily be simplified. Was Howard willing to leave the city of Orlando? How many teams was Howard willing to stay with for the long-term? How important was the extra money that Howard could get by being moved prior to the trade deadline? What were the Magic interested in getting back in a potential trade -- was it their preference to rebuild (presumably shedding salary and getting young assets back) or try to remain a relative contender? Would the Magic trade Howard to a team that couldn't be assured that Howard would remain their for the foreseeable future? It seems that many of the preceding questions have been answered: Howard appears willing to leave Orlando (as he was okay with being traded back in December and his trade request has remained on the table -- "nothing has changed"). Howard seems to have refined his list of potential teams. The "extra money" Howard can earn really only amounts to about five million dollars.
This is not to say that the whole Dwightmare situation is a simple one; rather that it is now clearer than it was before. Whether the reports that Howard is reluctant to sign with the Lakers is true: we can say that the list of potential suitors for Dwight's services is down to the Mavericks, Lakers and Nets. Of those three, the Lakers can provide the Magic with the best trade package in terms of pure talent (Bynum and Gasol); the Nets can put together the best package for a rebuilding effort; and the Mavericks appear unable to construct a sufficient trade offer. From various reports that we've seen, it looks as if the Lakers are reluctant to trade for Howard at all without reassurance that he'll remain with the team; let alone trade Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
If the preceding is true, it seems that the only realistic trade partner for the Orlando Magic is the Nets. Now, that doesn't necessarily lead us to say that the Nets hold some form of leverage over the Magic; as there is still uncertainty surrounding Deron Williams' willingness to remain with the team. It has been reported that the Nets would prefer to acquire Howard through a trade (presumably losing much of the team's depth) rather than facing this uncertainty. "This uncertainty" would seem to encompass a situation wherein Deron Williams -- the proverbial face of the franchise -- chooses to leave the team. If Deron Williams is to leave, conventional wisdom suggests that he would be doing so in order to join a better situation. But what is this situation? Well, many believe it to be the Dallas Mavericks -- they're in Williams' home-state; they have another star in Dirk Nowitzki; they're the defending-champs; they have an engaging owner in Mark Cuban; they spare Williams of paying taxes on half of his games every season; and, most importantly, they offer him the opportunity to team-up with his buddy Howard.
Since the opportunity to play with Howard is most important aspect of Williams presumably joining the Mavericks (the two have discussed teaming-up for years and it has been reported that they speak almost every day), I think that it should be inspected. Is it really realistic for Howard and Williams to join Cuban and Nowitzki in Dallas? How does Dallas stack up against Brooklyn?
If we are to have this debate, it assumes that Howard will be remaining with the Magic past the trade deadline -- if it is presumable for the Mavericks to acquire Howard, it must be that they would be signing him as a free-agent; as they do not have the pieces necessary to facilitate a trade with the Magic.
Both components (the market and the team itself) of this argument easily favor the Nets, but it behooves us to start with the one that is more readily understood. From a marketability standpoint (this encompasses media coverage, potential endorsement deals, market size, etc.) Brooklyn is far superior to that of Dallas. Can we call Dallas a "big-market"? Yes, but that's relative. Relative to New York, Dallas is not a "big-market." Now, will the Nets play second-fiddle to the Knicks? Most likely; and undoubtedly for the first couple years. However, being second to the Knicks while still playing in the best market in the country is still superior to that of other markets -- in this case, Dallas (see: Clippers, Los Angeles).
From a team standpoint, the Mavericks would have to clear out every non-expiring contract that they have (and get no salary back). This, in itself, seems like a near impossible task; they would have to clear the following (courtesy of Murse Mike):
Marion: 8,396,634 – player option 2013- 9.1mil
Dominique Jones: 1,276,560
Rodrigue Beaubois: 2,227,333
Amnesty Haywood (3 yrs @ 9mil per)
Odom buy-out: aprx 2,500,000 – player option – 8.2mil
VC buy-out: between 1.5 – 3.1mil
However, for the purpose of this discussion, let's grant that Mark Cuban would be able to pull this off. That would leave the Mavericks with Dirk Nowitzki and ... oh, that's it. They'd then proceed to sign Deron Williams and Howard to contracts that would cause them to lose about $20 million over their entire course relative to what they would get with the Nets. (And for the record, we're talking about actually losing $20 million; not like the reported $30 million that Howard would lose by leaving the Magic in free agency, which, as we said earlier, really only amounts to $5 million.) Here's the math (again, courtesy of Murse Mike):
2012 Salary cap = $58,044,000
Dirk's Salary: 20,907,128
Rookie Minimum Salary Cap Hold = 490,180 (one hold for every player under 12)
Deron Williams 2012 max salary: 17,177,795
Dwight Howard 2012 max salary: 18,996,358
(Salary cap) – (Dirk’s salary) – (minimum roster cap hold x11) = 31,744,892 / 2 = 15,872,446
So to this point, Williams and Howard have each sacrificed about $20 million to play with Dirk -- it's probably worth it though, right? Because the Mavericks would have a championship-contender-- oh, what's that? They'd have to fill out the rest of the roster with minimum wage players? So you're saying that they'd have nine minimum wage players? Uh-oh. Now, some may argue that the Mavericks could add ring-chasing veterans to minimum-wage deals. Maybe, they'd be able to get a few; but what would they do with the rest of the roster? You need effective role-players to win in the NBA -- history has shown us that. So the Mavericks probably wouldn't be a legit championship contender for a year or two. That's okay, we have tim-- what's that? We don't have time? Dirk Nowitzki is 34 (he will be, by the time this happens)? Oh ... well ... uh ... we can fill out the team with his cap-space when Nowitzki's contract expires. By that time, it would seem to defeat the purpose of both Williams and Howard giving up roughly $20 million to play with Dirk.
The Nets, on the other hand, would have: Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Anthony Morrow, Bojan Bodjanovic, Jordan Farmar, DeShawn Stevenson and TWO first-round picks in a stacked 2012 draft. They'd have the option of orchestrating a deal involving Lopez for a stud wing-player (my preference would be one of Andre Iguodala, Nicolas Batum or Eric Gordon) if they feel that the two (Lopez and Howard) don't fit well together. It seems -- to me, at least -- that from a basketball standpoint, this is far superior to what the Mavericks can offer.
So, lets review: To join the Mavericks, Williams and Howard would each have to lose roughly $20 million only to team up with Dirk Nowitzki and nine minimum-wage players. To join the Nets, they'd each get their max-contract (with Howard losing about $5 million relative to what he'd get with the Magic) and are surrounded by well-rounded roster; one that would make the team a sure championship-contender. I wonder, then, how this can even be a debate.
Now, I am not advocating that the Nets choose not facilitate a deal with the Orlando Magic. If it's there, they can't opt to decline the opportunity. There is still some risk involved: the Lakers could make an offer consisting only of Andrew Bynum or -- and this is something I don't foresee occurring -- the Knicks could enter the Dwight sweepstakes. I'm also not saying that the Nets should choose to low-ball the Magic (although I'd prefer that Billy King did some negotiating); there are too many mitigating circumstances. Instead I'm arguing that the Nets should not feel hard-pressed to make a deal in order to prevent Howard from reaching free-agency. No matter how charismatic Mark Cuban is, it's not going to persuade two players to lose a large sum of money to join what appears to be a worse team in a smaller market. I just don't see the Mavericks as a big-threat.