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The London Chronicles, Vol. 6: The Mailbag That Wasn’t

We interrupt the Olympic Games to bring you this shift of NBA power, courtesy of Dwight Howard and the Lakers

Man, life just couldn’t be better out here in how-the-hell-is-it-still-sunny London. I spent the past two weeks banging out world-class sporting events and watching people realize their lifelong goals. I knocked Wimbledon and Wembley off my sports bucket list. I caught a do-or-die quadruple-header of men’s hoops. I watched the USA women’s gymnastics and soccer teams capture gold medals under especially tense conditions. I devoured more women’s sports than I ever imagined: not just soccer and gymnastics but field hockey, volleyball, beach volleyball and (especially) handball. I lived vicariously through the Brits when Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah brought home golds on the same night. I saw five of the greatest athletes of their generation (and maybe ever): Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, LeBron James, Serena Williams and Timofey Mozgov.

You know what? I say we immortalize this experience with a mega-mailbag for old time’s sake. As always, these are actual e-mails from actual readers.

Q. The Lakers got Howard without having to give up Gasol??? Seriously NBA GM’s, what the hell? I’m very drunk and I have to work hardcore tomorrow. Is there a bright side or silver lining to this?
— Jay, Chicago

SG: Wait … what?

Q: You went on record saying that the Lopez/Humphries/multiple first round picks deal for Howard was “unacceptable.” If that deal was 30 cents on the dollar, this deal has to be 2 cents on the dollar, right? The Magic got family sized pupu platter deluxe in Afflalo, Harrington, Vukevic, Harkless and 3 protected picks in the 20s.
— Matt Whitaker, Columbus, OH

SG: Is this some kind of joke? That was the whole trade? Hold on, I need to read up on this. Give me a second. Go to the bathroom or something.

(Frantically Googling “Dwight Howard Lakers.”)

(Reading.)

(Getting mad.)

(Getting madder.)

(Throwing things.)

I’m just going to start typing. Here are my gut reactions …

WINNER: The Lakers Couldn’t have played it any more perfectly these past six months: never biting on Orlando’s “No, we need Gasol AND Bynum” power play, steadfastly refusing to assume Hedo Turkoglu’s lousy contract in any Bynum deal, and pretending they weren’t that interested in Howard (even though the league’s third-best player was potentially falling into their laps). Once Howard’s most likely suitor (Brooklyn) panicked about losing Deron Williams and guaranteed their non-Howard future, the Lakers responded by making their team a little more Howard-friendly with Steve Nash (one of a handful of NBA players that EVERYONE wants to play with), then hoped Howard’s extended recovery stint in Los Angeles would nudge him toward saying, “Hey, you know what? Maybe playing in a celebrity-friendly, warm-weather market with Nash and Gasol would offset having to watch Kobe launch 23 shots a game for the next two years.”

And as always with the Lakers, it worked out: They flipped the league’s second-best center (a top-20 player) into the league’s best center (and third-best player in the league) without sacrificing anything else of substance. I wrote this a few weeks ago and I’m writing it again: If scientists could create basketball-playing robots from scratch and were asked to create someone to play with Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant and Nash, basically, they would create Dwight Howard: a ridiculously strong shot blocker/rebounder who can run the floor and doesn’t need the ball to be happy. In the span of 3.5 seconds, the Lakers went from “old, slow, can’t defend anybody” to “who’s stopping us?”

And if that’s not enough, they went from “What the hell are we going to do these next two years with an aging team and no Plan B?” to “Hey, I know what we can do — we can try to win titles while also quietly retooling around the best center of this generation!” I’m gonna say this makes them a winner. Damn it all.

LOSER: Brooklyn If Howard’s inexplicable February flip-flop never happened, the Nets would have launched their new stadium with a Howard/Williams duo. Instead, they’re headed for a series of second-round playoff exits with one of the least charismatic playoff contenders ever assembled. Will anyone care? Not really. Did I mention the NBA is coming to Brooklyn? How much fun is that going to be?

WINNER: Dwight Howard When the Lakers are rolling and their fans are chugging the Howard Kool-Aid in a few months, nobody will remember that Howard disgraced himself with some of the wishy-washiest behavior in recent sports history. Remember what happened when LeBron won the 2012 title and played at a level that we hadn’t seen since Jordan’s prime? We forgave him for “The Decision.” Really, really quickly. I don’t remember anyone complaining about LeBron stacking his Miami team, or choosing to play with his biggest rival over trying to beat him, when we were watching him lay waste to Oklahoma City. We only care about what’s happening in the moment.

That’s professional sports in the 21st century — once you reach a certain level of quality, you can walk all over whomever you want without any real repercussions. Remember the Bridesmaids scene when they were trying on wedding dresses and everyone came down with violent diarrhea? Howard was all five bridesmaids and Orlando’s fans were the wedding dresses. In April, after the Lakers win 65 games and everyone is getting psyched for a Heat-Lakers Finals, nobody will care that Howard acted like such a big baby. We’ll be busy with crap like ranking him against the other great Lakers centers of all time. That’s just how sports works.

(Well, unless the 2013 Lakers don’t realize their potential. And then? Get ready for chaos.)

If you’re not totally sold on the Bynum-to-Howard upgrade for the Lakers, watch Spain and Argentina attack the rim against Team USA during the medal round. Had Howard played in the Olympics, nobody would have touched this American team — we could have rolled out LeBron, Howard, Durant, Carmelo, Chris Paul and the cast of The Big Bang Theory and still won every game by double figures. Pull Howard out of there and suddenly we’re playing small ball and relying on LeBron (never a bad thing) and our 3-point shooting (which, as you know, can come and go). There’s nobody in the NBA like him. God, I’m pissed off.

WINNER: Steve Nash Went from playing with 11 bench guys on a lottery team to playing with Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant on a title favorite. Remember SNL‘s “Orgasm Guy” sketches with Rob Schneider? I think that was Steve Nash this morning when he woke up and found out about this trade.

WINNER: The Los Angeles area Remember the days when Howard wouldn’t play for the Lakers because he didn’t like the phone call he had with Kobe Bryant, when Kobe allegedly told him that Dwight would make for a good third option? Well, Howard spent the last few months living at L’Ermitage (a fancy hotel in Beverly Hills) and rehabbing after undergoing surgery for a herniated disk. Every day, the Beverly Hills residents saw him strolling around town with his entourage (usually to and from Robertson Boulevard), since that was the best way for him to get a little exercise.1 And at some point, he must have realized, “Wow, I could get used to this.”

Important note: Most human beings move to Los Angeles for what they assume will be a short period of time, feel like they’re on vacation for a few months … and eventually, they come to grips with the fact that they’re probably never leaving because it’s 75 degrees every day and there are 10,000 things to do in Los Angeles. I am one of those people. Apparently, so is Dwight Howard. We’ll never know this for sure, but I don’t think he would have pushed for a Los Angeles trade if he hadn’t lived there this summer. There has to be a connection. It’s also why Lakers fans know they don’t have to worry about Howard leaving next summer. There’s no chance he leaves. It will never happen. (How’s this pathetic reverse jinx doing? Too blatant? Should I scale it back a little?)

WINNER: Pau Gasol Last year, Pau was playing the high post (not his game) on a fairly unhappy team with below-average point guards and settling for Kobe/Bynum shot scraps, basically. Oh, and he got thrown into a trade that was vetoed, had to spend the season playing for his old team and pretending they hadn’t just tried to trade him, sweated out February’s trade deadline and sweated out more trade rumors in June, July and even yesterday (when he was initially rumored to be included in this four-teamer). I’m going out on a limb and saying that he’ll enjoy his 2012-13 experience a little more.2

LOSER: Orlando I knew the pupu platter was coming. You knew it was coming. Even Orlando’s fans knew it was coming. But when it actually happens and you’re staring at those lukewarm spareribs? Man … there’s nothing worse.

What Orlando sent out: Howard and nearly $30 million of cap-clogging contracts belonging to Jason Richardson, Chris Duhon and Earl Clark.

What Orlando got back: Arron Afflalo, Nik Vucevic, Al Harrington, Mo Harkless, three protected first-rounders, cap space next summer, three soggy fried shrimp, six half-cooked egg rolls and four sweet-and-sour chicken skewers to be named later. Hey, at least there isn’t a storied history of NBA teams giving away superstars for 50 cents on the dollar, then totally regretting it after the fact … well, except for the two Wilt trades, the Kareem trade, the Dr. J trade, the T-Mac/Rockets trade, the Moses/Philly trade and the Barkley/Phoenix trade.

Was it a bad sign for Orlando that they got significantly less for the league’s only dominant center than the Hornets got for Chris Paul and the Nuggets got for Carmelo Anthony? I’m going out on a limb and saying “yes.” Had I been running the Magic, there would have been a zero percent chance — repeat: zero percent chance — that I was trading Howard unless I was getting Bynum back AND dumping Turkoglu’s contract. Without those two things, I’m just keeping Howard, letting the soap opera drag on and on for a few more months, then hoping I could do better in February.

And guess what? I’m pretty sure that, six months from now, Philly, Denver and the Lakers would all still want to do a four-team trade in which all of them made out great and the Magic made out like crap. I hate how Orlando handled this saga; I hate that they caved; and I hate this trade for them.

LOSER: Arron Afflalo I’m actually an Afflalo fan — just nine months ago, I made the case that it wouldn’t be outrageous if someone overpaid him. You know where I’m going to draw the line, though? On the sentence “the centerpiece of Orlando’s haul for Dwight Howard turned out to be Arron Afflalo.” Junior Bridgeman, Jeff Hornacek, Archie Clark and Caldwell Jones, move over … there’s a new sheriff in town!

WINNER: Masai Ujiri When the Lakers, Sixers and Magic couldn’t work out a three-teamer, that led to this moment:

Ujiri [on a conference call]: “So lemme get this straight … you’re asking me to flip the Afflalo/Harrington contracts and a future protected pick into one of the league’s best defensive players and someone who makes me even more athletic and more defensively frightening? [Prolonged silence as he repeatedly pumps his fist.] No, I didn’t hang up, I’m still here … “3

WINNER: Nuggets fans In less than two years, they went from watching a moody ball stopper who didn’t want to be there (Carmelo) to an entertaining nucleus of Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, JaVale McGee, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, Andre Miller and … (wait for it) … Timofey Mozgov! Love the defensive potential, love the athleticism, love the mix of personalities. That’s a nice team. You pull the Lakers and Oklahoma City out of their conference and they’d be right back in that thing.

LOSER: The Mavericks Just when they had talked their fans into the whole “Don’t worry, this is all gonna work out, we’re getting Dwight” thing, too. Whoops.

WINNER: Kendrick Perkins Remember when everyone was saying, “A year from now, OKC will just amnesty Perkins so they can pay Ibaka and Harden?” Not so fast! Getting rid of Howard’s Personal Kryptonite when Howard is suddenly playing for your biggest conference rival isn’t the best career move. (And you thought Miami’s shift to small ball had rendered the Perkins Era obsolete … )

WINNER: David Stern If the Notorious D.J.S. ever released a rap song, it would definitely be called “Tell Me How My Veto Tastes.” Even the Laker fans can’t be pissed at him anymore. Only Houston still hates him. That reminds me …

LOSER: The Rockets After getting demolished by The Veto, they spent the last nine months gathering enough assets to land Howard or Bynum and hoping for a situation exactly like the one that played out this week: you know, Orlando finally panicking and needing a third team for their mega-trade. What happened? Philly and Denver snuck in there, leaving Houston GM Daryl Morey with the permanent McKayla’s Not Impressed Face. Why did Orlando settle for that Afflalo/Harkless/protected picks package when Houston was willing to recklessly overpay for Howard with young assets AND take on every bad Orlando contract? And while we’re here, why didn’t Orlando just grab last month’s Brooklyn offer of Brook Lopez, MarShon Brooks, one year of Kris Humphries and four unprotected first-rounders for Howard and the same contracts they shed in this four-teamer? Those are two great questions.

So, can you kill Morey for how it played out? Not for going all-in for a chance at Bynum or Howard, that’s for sure. He wanted to be on the board if those two chess pieces ever moved … and by the way, they moved. He just didn’t get them. But if you wanted to kill the Rockets for (a) turning Goran Dragic into Jeremy Lin, (b) recklessly amnestying Luis Scola when they didn’t have to do so, and (c) caring so much about cap space that they amnestied Scola during the same month that they shelled out $25 million to Omer Asik … I mean … (let’s just move on).

WINNER: The Sixers They finally made a real move! Who knew the Sixers could make trades and stuff???? I loved this particular risk for them — basically, they flipped Iguodala (with whom they never won anything), Harkless (a project), Nik Vucevic (a young banger with potential) and a protected first-rounder into the league’s second-best center and a proven/overpaid 2-guard who was out of shape for much of last year but isn’t washed up by any means (Jason Richardson).4 They bring Bynum closer to his hometown (New Jersey), throw him in the East (where he’s immediately the best center in the conference), give him his own team and his own grateful fan base (the Sixers fans have been starving for a signature guy since Iverson left), give him 20 shots a game (which he always wanted), and hope he likes playing with Evan Turner, Jrue Holiday and everyone else enough that he’ll extend long-term next summer.

My fears in order …

Fear No. 1: They’re building around someone who just played his first injury-free season in five years. You can’t forget the injury risks here, even if (to paraphrase Val Kilmer in Heat), the Bynum is worth the risk.

Fear No. 2: They’re building around two of the league’s moodiest and most enigmatic players (Bynum and Turner). That one worries me. You can get away with one enigma (see: Rondo, Rajon), but if you have two, suddenly there’s a risk that they’ll be hanging out and enabling each other’s moodiness OR trying to out-enigma each other. Not saying it can’t work … just saying it’s a red flag.

Fear No. 3: Along those same lines, Bynum is a relatively strange guy, someone who loves pushing buttons, saying head-scratching things and keeping people on their toes. In Los Angeles, nobody really cared — Kobe pulled all the attention away from him, and besides, it’s not like L.A. is a ravenous, life-or-death sports market or anything. The Laker fans love their team, but they also live near the Pacific Ocean in a place that’s 75 degrees every day. Tends to keep everything in perspective.

Put it this way: You would never put the words “Philly” and “keep everything in perspective” in the same sentence. The two craziest, most overreactionary, life-or-death sports cities in America are probably Philly and Boston — because of their cold weather, because of their provincialism, because of their respective tortured histories, and because their sports media members love nothing more than pushing people’s buttons and blowing stuff out of proportion. If Bynum thinks he can show up in Philly and loaf through a game, throw a teammate or coach under the bus, or toss out one of those weird Bynum quotes like, “For as long as I’m on the Sixers, even if it’s just for a few months, I’m gonna give it my best” … he’s sorely mistaken. Putting a Sixers uniform on Bynum is going to be riveting.

WINNER: Metta World Peace He’s about to break the record for “Most Wide-Open Corner 3s Ever Attempted in One Season.” Is it too late for him to change his name to Metta Wide-Open 3? Wouldn’t that make more sense, anyway?

LOSERS: Miami, Oklahoma City So much for the small-ball era. This is going to be verrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrry interesting.

WINNER: The Jared Sullinger Era in Boston If the Lakers just flipped Bynum for someone with a surgically repaired back, that makes me feel better about my team’s potential steal in the first round who fell 15 spots because of his supposedly injured back that hasn’t even been surgically repaired yet.5

TO BE DETERMINED: Kobe Bryant Guess who has a chance to pass MJ’s six rings now?

Guess who suddenly has a legitimate chance to go down as the best Laker ever?

Guess who basically won the lottery by ending up with Shaq and Howard in the same career?

Guess who could play another seven years as something of a DH because he won’t really have to play defense anymore (with Howard protecting him)?

Guess who’s getting blamed if the Lakers don’t win the title this year?

Guess who could single-handedly submarine this whole thing by continuing to believe he’s the best player on the team even after that’s no longer the case?

(This could go on for another 30 guesses.)

LOSER: Celtics fans, Suns fans, Clippers fans … And everyone else who hates the Lakers.

WINNER: Steve Nash, again “Hmmmmm … what should we do on this play? Should I run the high screen with Pau again? I could always just take a rest and dump it over to Kobe for a play. Or, I could beat my guy, try to draw Dwight’s guy over and throw him an alley-oop that he’ll catch as long as it’s within five feet of the rim. God, this is fun. Eff it, I think I’ll just shoot a 3 — if it doesn’t go in, Dwight will just get the rebound, anyway … ”

WINNER: Mitch Kupchak and the Buss family It’s a franchise that keeps making big moves — or, NOT making big moves — at the right time over and over again. Picking Kobe over Shaq in 2004. Keeping Kobe in 2007 when just about everyone else would have panic-traded him. Stealing Gasol from Memphis in 2008. Making a 2011 deal for Chris Paul that, in retrospect, would have been a hijacking if it hadn’t been vetoed. Not panicking after the CP3 trade fell through and keeping Bynum and Gasol over blowing things up. And now, waiting out this Howard saga until they got exactly the trade they wanted.

Take it from a bitter 2012 Red Sox fan — just because you’re a big-market team that can outspend everyone doesn’t mean things can’t get horribly screwed up. The Lakers nailed six franchise-altering moves over the past eight years, and that’s not including last month’s Nash trade, when they somehow convinced a Pacific Division rival that absolutely hates them to hand over their most iconic player for some meaningless picks and cap space. What an amazing run. You have to hand it to the Los Angeles Lakers.

(By the way, I think I’m just going to stay in London. I don’t want to come home. As for the rest of the mega-mailbag … we’ll continue it on Monday.)

Filed Under: Dwight Howard, Olympics, People, Series, Sports, The Sports Guy

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Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland.

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