In the end, Dwight Howard made the obvious basketball decision. Of all the teams pursuing him in free agency, the Houston Rockets were the only ones with a star (James Harden) in his prime. The Los Angeles Lakers are the most glamourous franchise in the NBA and the Dallas Mavericks have one of the most player-friendly owners, but Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki are in their mid-30’s. In the modern NBA, stars attract stars.
The moment that should have given the game away came in the Rockets' presentation to Howard. According to reports, Howard wanted to know whether Houston could get a third star, namely his childhood friend Josh Smith. Smith wound up signing with the Detroit Pistons, but the underlying logic behind Howard’s request still stands. Why be “the man” when you can be part of a Big Three? What’s the point in being the “alpha dog” of an average team?
Three years after “The Decision”, the NBA is still feeling the aftershocks. When LeBron James took his talents to South Beach, he ushered in the era of the super-team. Since then, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard have all changed franchises looking for All-Star teammates of their own. If you want to know where the league goes from here, just follow the stars. Howard was the biggest domino on the board, but there are others still in play.
For the Rockets, the obvious move is either Kevin Love or LaMarcus Aldridge. They are two of the best power forwards in the NBA, but Aldridge has never won a playoff series and Love has never even made the postseason. While both are still two years from free agency, the pressure on their teams is building already. The vast majority of stars sign extensions with the team that drafts them. They don’t leave until the end of their second contract, when they hit unrestricted free agency for the first time.
The Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers both improved this offseason, but neither team has a second star, nor a realistic means of acquiring one. Damian Lillard and Ricky Rubio are interesting players, but they’ll need to beat out Paul, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Stephen Curry, Jrue Holiday and Ty Lawson to make an All-Star team. Unless their young point guards make the leap, Minnesota and Portland look like one-and-done playoff teams, at best.
Houston, meanwhile, will have the assets and flexibility to make a legitimate run at Love or Aldridge. Omer Asik is a defensive force with a very affordable $8 million cap hit. Chandler Parsons and Patrick Beverley are starting caliber players with great contracts. Terrence Jones, their talented second-year power forward from Kentucky, looks poised for a breakout season. And if the Golden State Warriors could move Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson, the Rockets can find someone to take Jeremy Lin.
Emptying the cupboard would be a difficult decision for Daryl Morey, but a legitimate Big Three would be too tempting to pass up. Howard, Harden and an All-Star PF would devastate the NBA. That’s the formula for a dynasty: three elite players in their prime whose games complement each other. Aldridge and Love are great shooters who can contribute on both sides the floor, pretty much the ideal skill-set for a complementary star.
That’s the type of scenario that will attract a big-time free agent. Cap space, in and of itself, isn’t that appealing. Miami cleared out the space to sign three max contracts in 2010, but that only worked because there were three stars on the market. That’s a dangerous thing to assume, as the Atlanta Hawks found out this summer. They had the space to sign Howard and Paul, but once Paul re-upped with the Los Angeles Clippers, that no longer mattered.
Even one year in advance, it’s hard to predict what the free agent market will look like. A lot of stars could be available in the summer of 2014, but always in motion is the future. While LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all have opt-outs, they may decide to stay together with Miami, depending on how the playoffs go next season. That would leave Carmelo Anthony and a bunch of older players whose best days are behind them -- Kobe, Dirk, Pau Gasol and Zach Randolph -- on the market.
Heading into 2014, teams with a star already in hand will have a huge edge on their competition. If Howard wouldn’t take the Lakers money in 2013, why would Carmelo take it in 2014? If the selling point is free agents they can sign in 2015, he could be left holding the bag if the market changes. Is that really a more appealing scenario than playing with Derrick Rose in Chicago? The Bulls could have the room if they amnesty Carlos Boozer and don’t re-sign Luol Deng.
When teams can’t compete on money, they have to compete on talent. Howard took less money to sign with Houston, but not that much less. The $30 million he gave up to leave the Lakers came mainly from the extra year they could offer. However, even if he had stayed with Los Angeles, he would never have seen the fifth year of that contract. Barring a medical issue, he would have opted out after four years, in order to get a final long-term, max money deal at the age of 31.
That dynamic would change completely without the max contract. Given how much money is flowing into the sport, it’s hard to say exactly how much a player like Howard is worth to a team. Whatever the number is, it’s certainly more than $20 million. A pitch from a “glamour” franchise would be a lot more glamorous if it came with a $50 million annual salary. The surplus value a star’s contract provides is what gives them so much leverage in free agency.
The max salary, in many ways, is what makes the entire super-team construct possible. After all, it’s easier for Bosh to accept fewer touches than LeBron and Wade when the Big Three all have the same salaries. In the NBA, ego problems usually come down to money. Before the max, being an alpha dog had actual financial implications. In their last year with the Bulls, Michael Jordan made roughly $30 million more than Scottie Pippen.
While the NBA has always been a star’s league, the current economic system only empowers them further. If the owners want to make it harder for them to switch teams, they have to increase the financial incentives for them to stay. Otherwise, franchises with one All-Star will forever be looking over their shoulder. Even with Howard and Harden in hand, the Rockets are still lurking. To paraphrase Sean Parker, having two stars isn’t cool. Having three is.