Many Lakers fans in Los Angeles and abroad are ecstatic to have a new “man in the middle” in Dwight Howard. I can not lie; I am also one of these people. Like all the other purple and gold diehards, I too wish to fall asleep for a month and a half and wake up in October. I am elated at the thought of Nash throwing a perfectly timed lob or bounce pass off of an impeccably executed pick ‘n’ roll play and Howard bringing it down and rattling the rim so hard that all of Staples Center are exploded onto their feet and millions elsewhere in their homes are roused to jump up and down and scream at their television sets. These are all happy thoughts and we as fans have every right to indulge in them. The Lakers have somehow done it again: we acquired an all-star point guard and the best center in the league for practically nothing…at least that’s the way it seems. Yes we did give up Andrew Bynum (arguably the second best center in the league) but that’s not even what I’m alluding to here. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have wanted our off-season to go any other way but there are THREE reasons why the Dwight Howard trade could put the Lakers in a precarious situation in the near future. I will list and describe these reasons in descending order from least complex and significant, to most complex and significant.
1) First, and least complicated of all is Howard’s health. As most NBA fans know Howard had back surgery early in this off-season. Now some analysts have projected that Howard will be ready to play by Christmas day while others have predicted his return much earlier but what no one ever purports to know is if he’ll be the same beast on both ends of the court that we all know him to be. Will he return in top form? If so how long will it take? This is a problem for obvious reasons: we gave a healthy Bynum up for a potentially busted Howard and if he is not ready to go early in the fall our chances of winning become that much more slender. I for one realistically believe that Howard will not be ready to play on opening night but will suit up sometime around Thanksgiving. Also, I believe it will take him no longer than a week or two to shake off the rust and beast it up once he returns to the floor. My reasoning for this is that his surgery was not a major one and Howard is a competitor who does not want to see his prime years sheared down by sluggish recovery time. He will do his best to come to L.A. in peak condition. While his surgery may not have been a major one, it was still a back surgery so no one can really say what his health will be like come October. It is possible that we may have traded Bynum for a Howard rental that could miss a significant portion of the season. This brings me to the second reason the Howard trade could be a dangerous one…
2) Dwight Howard becomes a free agent after the 2012-2013 season. This means that if the Lakers decide to keep Howard past the February in-season trade deadline, Howard can possibly walk away from L.A. and we would be left with nothing to show for it. While Howard has not made any verbal commitments to the Lakers beyond this season, what he has said thus far concerning the trade seems to suggest that he is willing and eager to establish himself among the long list of great Laker big men. While his words have been heartening to Laker fans, he is still leaving himself some wiggle room to evacuate from L.A. if he feels the urge next year. Let us all remember how fickle D12 can be from his Orlando saga. Essentially, we are now in the same position that Orlando was in with Howard this past year: will he re-sign? Won’t he? Should we trade him? Should we keep him and roll the dice? As an L.A. fan looking in on the Orlando drama that surrounded Dwight, I was loathe for a situation like that to befall the Lakers, but like it or not, that is essentially where we are now. People are simply just not talking about it because the ink is barely drying on Howard’s contract with us and we have not even entered the honeymoon phase of our relationship with Howard yet. Unless Howard agrees to an extension before new years, I suspect a lot of tension and collective nail-biting in Los Angeles over Mr. Howard.
3) Lastly, the most complex, the most potentially hazardous, and least known gamble in the Dwight Howard trade is the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. As of now, each team has to pay one dollar to every dollar it exceeds over the luxury tax cap. For example if we are 10 Million dollars over the luxury tax cap this season, we will have to pay a total of 20 Million dollars to the league in addition to our regular roster salaries. This is how it has been for a while now so where is the danger you ask? This rule changes in 2013 according to the new CBA. In 2013 we will have to pay two dollars for every one dollar we are over the luxury limit. Still not worried? Let me cut to the chase here and fast forward to 2015. In 2015 the ratio quadruples and we will have to pay four dollars to every one dollar we are over. According to the new CBA the ratio in luxury taxes increases every year after 2012. The Lakers are one of the most expensive teams in the NBA and with the additions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, our luxury tax woes have only deepened. Though I don’t know the exact figures, if things stay the way they are in Laker Land, we will be paying something like an additional 125 Million dollars in luxury tax. That’s not even taking into account the regular salaries of our players. So even if Howard signs a long-term extension with the Lakers this season, what kind of financial situation will that put us in in the next few years? How will the Lakers front office find the revenue to pay the fat salaries AND the luxury taxes that it may incur in the next two years?
I don’t mean to dampen the spirits of any fans who read this. Honestly I am as excited to see Howard in a Lakers jersey as anyone (if not more) and for the most righteous of reasons. The acquisition of Howard immediately makes us serious title contenders and instantly vaults us into the top 5 defensive teams in the league. In Howard we are combining two past Defensive Player of the Year winners (World Peace) with an already defense-minded coach (Mike Brown). I am optimistic that Dwight’s back will be fine and that the allure, lifestyle, and winning culture of Los Angeles will easily persuade Howard to stay long-term. Oh yeah, and a ring wouldn’t hurt either. As far as the finances go, I can only put my faith in the Buss family that has pulled off amazing trade after amazing trade and somehow made the numbers work. Based on our history alone, I don’t see the new CBA completely doing the Lakers in. Then again, who knows? It is a new era in the NBA. One like we have never seen. The league is trending toward the construction of super-teams and we are the latest and most massive of the star cluster teams. Will we be able to maintain it? Will the super-team bubble burst and collapse in on itself in the next few years? No one can say but these are all reasons why Laker Land has reason to be cautiously optimistic this season.