UPDATE (8:11 pm PT) - Obviously this was written before tonight's bombshell, with the Lakers acquiring Steve Nash from Phoenix. How it impacts the possibility/probability of a Bynum-for-Howard deal I can't say. It could make it more likely, it could make it less. Ultimately, it's still on the Nets to put together a viable deal. If they can't, though, and the Lakers have a chance to pull the trigger, my thoughts regarding what's below don't change. Assuming his back is on track, you do that deal, even if Howard won't commit right away to an extension.
Put Dwight Howard with that crew, erasing mistakes defensively and the Lakers become a terrifying group.
On the winds of epic-level wishy-washiness, Dwight Howard has officially sailed his S.S. Destiny into an offshore barrier reef. Now that Brooklyn has re-upped with Deron Williams, traded for Joe Johnson, and so on, the simplest, cleanest paths for Howard to his preferred destination have been gummed up. He can still join Jay-Z's crew, but between their financial constraints and a lack of high-end options to send back, as John Hollinger notes (Insider required), squeezing Howard onto their roster could be difficult for the Nets on a few levels.
Brooklyn still must form a deal satisfying the Magic while navigating the CBA's arcane mathematical demands. If they can't, the landscape changes and Howard's "Plan B" cities are back in play. With Andrew Bynum, the Lakers, not a team in which Howard had expressed much (if any) interest, can still offer Orlando the single best player known to be available in the endless trade conversations surrounding Superman over the last couple years.
That's always a good place to start, but would the Lakers move him without a firm commitment from Howard on an extension? Should they?
Without it, the Lakers would risk sacrificing Bynum for what amounts to a one-year rental. Still, assuming Howard's surgically repaired back is healing up and won't be a long-term problem -- a major issue, obviously -- there are compelling reasons to take a shot, even without securing assurances from Howard on the front end:
1. If he's traded to L.A., Howard's top choice is off the market through free agency.
The only way Howard now gets to Brooklyn is via trade. Should the Magic flip him to L.A., there's no threat of him signing in the borough after the season. Even if the Lakers weren't his top choice before, what matters now isn't the gap between L.A. and Brooklyn, but, say, L.A. and Dallas or Atlanta.
2. That preference gap would have to be worth millions. Tens of 'em.
That's the difference between what the Lakers could give him in a max deal vs. a team he'd sign with as a free agent after the season, because L.A. would hold Bird rights on Howard. Set aside all the talk of falling in love with the history of the organization, the glory of being a Laker, and so on: Generally speaking athletes don't leave massive piles of cash on the table, not when offered from a team like the Lakers. The Nets, for example, were able to offer about $25 million more to Deron Williams than Dallas, undoubtedly a major advantage. Would Howard be so unhappy in L.A./enamored with other options he'd walk away from a mountainous chunk of guaranteed money?
3. Even Howard making it clear he won't stay in Los Angeles post-trade doesn't automatically mean the Lakers sacrificed Bynum for nothing.
Should things turn sour next season the Lakers could move Howard at the trade deadline, or construct a sign-and-trade after the season. Not an ideal nor foolproof plan by any stretch, since a team like Atlanta (as things stand today) could drop Howard neatly into their cap space in a straight signing. Other squads would likely spend the year clearing room to accommodate him, too. The Lakers could lose him, outright, or be forced to take pennies on the dollar. But the point is, the Lakers would have on their hands a very valuable trade asset, which wisely used could yield some quality stuff. Chances are they wouldn't come away totally empty-handed.
4. Howard is better than Bynum.
Even after Drew's breakout campaign last season, even now that both have health concerns, Howard is better. This isn't an insult to Bynum -- Howard is better than most everyone in the league, which gets to the core of the issue. The NBA is star-driven, and talent ultimately dictates results. Having one of the game's truly elite, game-changing players who could be quickly lost is better than not having him at all, so get the guy and ask the other questions later. Particularly if there's any doubt about a long-term commitment to Bynum.
5. The wisdom of Elaine.
Among the truly classic half hours of "Seinfeld" was "The Little Jerry," in which Kramer thinks he's buying a hen, but it turns out to be a rooster ("Well, that would explain Little Jerry's poor egg production.") he turns into a cockfighter. Meanwhile, Elaine, an unabashed bald-ist, is given a marriage proposal from a man who is losing his hair. The final scene takes place in a dirty basement with the gang waiting for Little Jerry to enter the ring.
Elaine tells Jerry she's going to say yes. Jerry notes marriage is a huge, life changing decision.
"Jerry, it's 3 a.m. and I'm at a cockfight," she replies. "What am I clinging to?"
By their standards, if they're not at a late-night cockfight the Lakers are getting close. As currently constructed, the Lakers aren't going to win a title. They're just not, evidenced by a 1-8 record in their last nine second-round playoff games. Meanwhile, courtesy of the new CBA, avenues to improvement aren't readily available. If there's a free agent on the market capable of making a significant impact, chances are the Lakers can't afford him. Maybe a trade of Pau Gasol nets enough talent to push the Lakers back to the top of the West, but it's not likely. The Lakers don't have access to the NBA's most elite players.
Would swapping Bynum for Howard make the Lakers title favorites? No. They'd still need some combination of outside shooting, bench depth and wing scoring. But it improves them while simultaneously providing access to an established post-Kobe Bryant superstar. The aesthetics of the move blowing up in their face wouldn't be good. Jim Busswould probably be pilloried, particularly if Bynum thrives in Orlando. But in reality the Lakers wouldn't be risking the fortunes of a true championship contender. More likely, they'd cost themselves the opportunity at a couple of early postseason exits. Meanwhile, epic failure would leave them that much closer to the sort of teardown-to-reconstruction they'll almost surely need at some point to a) avoid the truly punitive luxury tax provisions and restrictions in the new labor agreement and b) rebuild the roster in a genuinely coherent way. The "mistake" wouldn't have to set them back all that long.
On the other hand ...
Bynum is a unique talent, capable of dominating both sides of the floor. Legitimate as the questions about his maturity and attitude might be, there's a real chance he figures it out and in two or three seasons is the type of player a franchise can build around in all the ways that matter. The chatter about Howard not wanting to play with Kobe might not be code for "I'd rather play in Brooklyn," but "I don't want to play with Kobe. Seriously. Even if I get to make lots more money. Short of printing T-shirts, I can't be any more clear about this, Buss family." Howard will be tougher to trade than Bynum, because Drew has always given the impression he'll play for most any team able to pay him and grow his role. Howard will be more particular. If the Lakers pull the trigger and things go sour, Bryant's dwindling chances of winning one more ring with the Lakers likely evaporate completely.
And, of course, my caveat up top about Howard's back being a non-factor doesn't magically make it so. The new robot parts put into Howard's robot body might malfunction, too, a major consideration even balanced against equally substantial concerns about Bynum's knees. Strange as it is to say, at this moment, at least, Bynum is the healthier guy.
The risks can't be discounted.
But as others have noted looking at the prospective deal, this is the sort of thing the Lakers do. They are aggressive. They take risks. They are bold. Last season, the Lakers pulled off a trade for Chris Paulthat had the potential to be transformative. We'll never know. Bynum-for-Howard would be riskier, but the rewards are greater.
It's worth a shot.