Note: This could end up being one of the craziest months in NBA history. To celebrate the signings, trades, rumors, roster shuffling, insanity and (almost definitely) ensuing hilarity/incompetence, I have unleashed a special series called “The 12 Days of NBA Christmas.” Every weekday through December 19 (give or take a day), I will be writing about this unexpected NBA Christmas.
Day 1: The Road to Groundhog Day (and more dumb contracts than ever)
Day 2: The Donut Dilemma (the bubble in the center market)
Day 3: Is Arron Afflalo Really Worth $50 Million?
Day 4: Where the Hell is Chris Paul Going?
Day 5: Inside Grantland Featuring Blake Griffin, Part II
Day 6: The Day the NBA Lost Its Way
The One Day When the Clippers Actually Mattered (VOIDED BY DAVID STERN)
Day 8: The Chris Paul NBA Hostage Crisis Continues
Day 9 (12/14): The Might of Dwight
Dwight Howard might switch teams this month. I used the word “might” because it might happen and it might not happen. He might stay in Orlando. He might get traded. He might be happy in Orlando. He might not be happy in Orlando. He might stick around for a few months. He might leave tomorrow. He might win multiple titles. He might not appear in the Finals ever again. He might be the one to blame for Orlando’s underachieving these past two seasons. He might be a victim of an incompetent front office. He might be one of the best centers ever. He might be someone who took advantage of a really weird era. Might. Might. Might.
Nobody knows what to make of Howard these days. Isn’t it fascinating that Chris Paul’s up-in-the-air situation has totally overshadowed Howard’s up-in-the-air situation? Why isn’t it a bigger deal that, for the eighth time in basketball history, a superstar center might be available? Wilt Chamberlain switched teams in 1965; the Sixers won a title two years later. Wilt switched teams again in 1968; the Lakers won a title four years later. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar switched teams in 1975; the Lakers won five titles from 1980 to 1988. Moses Malone switched teams in 1982; the Sixers won a title nine months later. Shaquille O’Neal switched teams in 1996; the Lakers won three titles in a row from 2000 to 2002. Shaq switched teams again in 2004; the Heat won a title two years later. No superstar center has ever switched teams in his prime (or the tail end of his prime) without a parade eventually following.
Just so we’re clear, the best six centers of all time were Bill Russell, Kareem, Wilt, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaq and Moses in that order (in my opinion). They won a combined 26 of the past 54 titles. From there, it drops a level to David Robinson (2 titles), Bill Walton (2 titles), Willis Reed (2 titles), Dave Cowens (2 titles) and George Mikan (5 titles), and then it drops another level to Patrick Ewing (0 titles), Wes Unseld (1 title), Nate Thurmond (0 titles) and Robert Parish (4 titles).1 What happens over the next few years of Howard’s career will determine where he ranks historically. He will never approach Russell, Kareem or Wilt. That Hakeem/Shaq/Moses group is within reach, although Robinson’s spot is probably more realistic.
You probably know this already, but just in case: I wrote an NBA book called The Book of Basketball that ranks every player from 96 down to 1, pyramid style, with five levels in all. Yes, it’s available in paperback. Yes, you can ask for it for Christmas. Yes, this is a shameless plug. That’s why I buried it in a footnote.
And you know what? That makes sense. Robinson is probably our best comparison for Howard: a physical specimen and sabermetric wet dream who never made you say, “If my life depended on one game, I’d want HIM on my team.” Of course, Robinson battled Hakeem, Ewing, Shaq and Dikembe Mutombo during his prime; Howard is battling the Gasols, Nene, Andrew Bynum and Tyson Chandler. You could unearth 50 different ways to prove that, statistically, Dwight Howard is better offensively and defensively than every other current center. (Like clockwork: 23 points, 14 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, 60 percent shooting and a quantifiable effect on opposing field goal percentage night after night after night.) He’s the most reliable star since Karl Malone and the most durable center since Wilt, playing in 614 of a possible 621 games (including playoffs) in seven Orlando seasons.
That eerie consistency turned out to be more interesting than anything else about Dwight Howard. Maybe his Superman gimmick (brazenly stolen from Shaq) and a couple of gregarious Dunk Contest appearances made a subtle mainstream impact, but nothing memorable or original. His best basketball moment happened in 2009 — Orlando shocked the heavily favored Cavs before losing to the Lakers in the Finals — when Howard was overshadowed by LeBron (“Does this mean he’s leaving Cleveland???”) and Kobe (“He finally won a title without Shaq!”). Even his juiciest off-the-court issue turned out to be juiceless: After the mother of his child (a former Magic dancer, no less) joined the cast of Basketball Wives, Howard’s legal team sprung into action and banned her from even mentioning him on the show.
He’s the only superstar center without a definable hook, unless you want to count his steadfast refusal to stop picking up cheap fouls or swatting shots out of bounds (over keeping those blocks in play). Russell had defense. Wilt had everything. Kareem had the sky hook. Moses was impossibly relentless, Shaq was impossibly overpowering, Hakeem was impossibly quick. Howard has durability? Consistency?
These past two weeks doubled as something of a microcosm of Howard’s career — like always, nobody can figure out what’s important to him. His “trade request” said it all. Howard asked to be dealt before his contract expires next summer. When pressed for a reason, he complained that Magic general manager Otis Smith never gave him input in deals. (It almost seemed like Howard was hoping the Magic would fire Smith and hire his buddy Gilbert Arenas to replace him, which, by the way, would have been awesome.) A day later, Howard backed off that stance and decided that, actually, he didn’t want to be traded but if it happens, it happens. Somewhere in the middle of this wishy-washy mess he submitted a list of acceptable trade partners to Orlando’s management. The list had three teams on it.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
A lifestyle/brand choice, not a basketball choice. Assuming they dealt Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum for Howard (along with Turkoglu’s contract and maybe even J.J. Redick’s contract), that leaves them with 33-year-old Kobe Bryant (1,311 career games, undeniably past his prime) and a bunch of role players and overpaid guys clogging their cap and that would be Howard’s team for the next three years, you know, because Kobe earns $25.2 million this year, $27.849 million next year and $30.453 million in the final year of his contract. Good luck winning a title there, Dwight.
2. Dallas Mavericks
A smarter choice because he joins the defending champs, plays with an alpha dog (Dirk Nowitzki) and gets a big-market owner who loves spending money and employs smart people. Too bad they have nothing to trade. Sorry, Dallas, you’re not getting Howard and Hedo Turkoglu’s contract for Brendan Haywood, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, Roddy Beaubois and some future no. 1s. This can’t happen until next summer, when Dallas will have finally created enough cap space to sign a marquee free agent. Can you wait that long, Dwight?
3. New Jersey Nets
It seemed far-fetched that Jersey could land Howard for Brook Lopez (one of the league’s most overrated young players)2 and a couple of future first-rounders who won’t amount to anything because Howard guarantees you 47 wins a year and today that far-fetchedness (far-fetchosity?) was confirmed when ESPN’s Chad Ford reported that Orlando turned down a three-team deal netting them Lopez, Gerald Wallace and five first-rounders, along with a chance to dump every bad contract it has. (The Magic also pulled Howard off the table entirely, at least for right now.) Let’s say Orlando changes its mind — New Jersey would have Deron Williams, a slew of awful contracts, deep pockets and the Brooklyn thing going. There’s a ton going on, no question. I like the Howard/Williams pairing, absolutely. But that’s not a guaranteed title contender for a couple of years at least.
Lopez averaged 35.2 minutes per game last season and grabbed 6 rebounds a game. He’s 7 feet tall. I don’t know, this seems like a red flag to me.
That brings us back to the “What’s important to you, Dwight?” question. Again, it’s unclear why he soured on Orlando — it’s hard for me to believe that “Otis Smith doesn’t give me input” trumps loyal fans, warm weather, no state taxes and a half-decent basketball situation (Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, Redick, Ryan Anderson, Glen Davis and whatever Turkoglu gives them) that matches what he’d have in, say, New Jersey.3 If he cared about winning titles AND playing in a big market AND finding a trade partner that actually made sense for Orlando, he would have picked these two destinations as well.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
Here’s what kills the Magic: They don’t shed enough cap money next summer to make even a “Don’t worry, Dwight, we’ll get you more help next summer!” case. That ship sailed about two years ago. Amnestying Gilbert Arenas’ remaining $62.4 million only allowed them to save luxury tax money; it didn’t give them any real flexibility. Plus, they kept the GM who got them into this mess! If I were Howard, I’d probably flee the premises, too.
The Clips could blow everyone else away with a “Chris Kaman, Eric Gordon, Ryan Gomes, Eric Bledsoe, Al-Farouq Aminu and Minnesota’s unprotected 2012 no. 1 pick for Howard and Turkoglu’s contract” offer if Howard ever said the words, “Upon further review, playing with Blake Griffin, Mo Williams, Caron Butler, Chauncey Billups, DeAndre Jordan, Randy Foye and Turkoglu, living in Los Angeles and competing for a title every year sounds pretty cool, let’s do it.” Nobody is topping that offer. Repeat: nobody. I’m assuming he wants to avoid the Clippers because of Donald Sterling, because they’re usually a mess, and because he doesn’t want that Clipper stink on him. (I can’t totally blame him.) But if he cares about winning titles and playing in a big market, that’s his second-best option behind
5. Chicago Bulls
And here’s why the Dwight Howard era makes me nervous. As I’ve written before, God doles out the “complete car wash package” to only a handful of athletes. We love the ones who take care of it; we resent the ones who don’t. Through seven years, Howard displayed every skill except one: an ongoing thirst to dominate everyone else. Shaq drifted through his career, made excuses, only intermittently stayed in shape and made a point to care about a variety of things — not just basketball — but during the 2000, 2001 and 2002 playoffs, history will show that he annihilated everyone in his path. (Same for Hakeem in the 1994 and 1995 playoffs, Moses in the 1983 playoffs the list goes on and on.) Dwight hasn’t had that moment yet. Never jumped a level when it mattered. Never dragged his teammates to a better place, made them feel invincible, made his opponents say, “Once that guy gets going, we’re helpless.” If anything, those opponents swung the other way, allowed him to get his stats and concentrated on shutting down everyone else (like Atlanta did last spring).
Quite simply, it’s been weird to watch. The numbers say one thing; our eyes say something else. We’re watching someone take care of the “complete car wash package,” but not totally. And that infamous trade list summed everything up. How could the Chicago Bulls NOT be on it?
How could Howard not be thinking, “Get me to Chicago, I could win right away!”
How could Howard be looking at this NBA landscape without saying, “Maybe it’s a good idea for me to team up with Derrick Rose, the 23-year-old MVP?”
How could someone in his camp not point out to him, “Hey Dwight, if you pushed for the Bulls, they could offer Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Omer Asik, salary-cap filler and two no. 1 picks and take back your deal and Turkoglu’s deal, and you’d still have Rose, Carlos Boozer, Rip Hamilton, Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson, whatever veterans they can bring in AND the best defensive coach in the league?”
And if you’re picking a cold-weather team based on markets, point guards and branding opportunities, how could you pick Brooklyn (living in the shadow of the Knicks), Deron Williams, this goofy Nets ownership, a lousy supporting cast and a franchise with a sad-sack history over Chicago (the third-biggest market), Rose (better and younger than Williams), a better supporting cast, a shrewd ownership and one of the most rabid fan bases in the league?
Put it this way: If I’m Dwight Howard, I’m thinking about titles and titles only. I don’t care about money — that’s coming, regardless. I don’t care about weather — I have to live in whatever city for only eight months a year, and I’m traveling during that entire time, anyway. I don’t care about “building my brand” and all that crap — if I don’t start winning titles soon, my brand is going to be “the center who’s much better than every other center but can’t win a title.” I care only about playing in a big city, finding a team that doesn’t have to demolish itself to acquire me, finding one All-Star teammate who can make my life a little easier (the Duncan to my Robinson), and winning titles. Not title titles. I want to come out of this decade with more rings than anyone else. I want to be remembered alongside Shaq, Moses and Hakeem, not Robinson and Ewing.
If you’re looking at it like that, Chicago has to be the choice. Two summers ago, I thought LeBron copped out by joining forces with his biggest rival; it just seemed peculiar that the most talented player of his generation, and possibly ever, would willingly become the Robin to someone else’s Batman. Howard’s trade list was peculiar for a different reason: Either he doesn’t follow the league, cares about the wrong things, has the wrong people advising him, or all of the above. Because I can’t imagine, for the life of me, why Dwight Howard wouldn’t be scheming to become Derrick Rose’s teammate right now.
As a basketball fan, I’m disappointed. As a Celtics fan, I’m delighted. Either way, the way he ignored Chicago tells me everything I need to know about Dwight Howard. Wherever he lands, that team will definitely win. I just don’t know if it’ll win. And neither do you.
Bill Simmons is the Editor in Chief of Grantland and the author of the recent New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball, now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. Follow him on Twitter and check out his new home on Facebook.
Previously from Bill Simmons: