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For the better part of the past two seasons, Dwight Howard's future defined his present.
|Dwight Howard said he needed to clear his head after a disappointing Lakers season.|
Where he wanted to play became as important as where he was playing. Who he wanted to play with became more important than who he was currently playing with.
In Orlando, the year of Howard's monumental indecision became known as the "Dwightmare." At the end of his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers, Howard himself called it a "nightmare."
Now, finally, Howard is in a position to decide. To put an end to all this speculation and choose, once and for all, what he wants and where his future will be.
After such a long, arduous wait, you'd expect him to just blurt it out the first chance he got. To scream it from the rooftops and then lie down for a well-deserved nap.
Instead, he asked for more time.
"I'm going to take my time and get away from my phone and everything and just clear my head," Howard said after the Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs last week. "I think I deserve that right and that's what I'm going to do."
It was, more or less, exactly what he'd said all season. I'm not sure why anyone thought he'd suddenly change his tune 24 hours after the Lakers were eliminated. As if now that the games were over he could finally blurt out a secret he's been keeping for years.
But that's pretty much how his words landed.
Wait, after all this you need more time? What's there left to think about? Haven't you seen enough this season to know whether this whole Laker thing is for you?
A week later, but with far less consternation, Los Angeles Clippers star Chris Paul said almost exactly the same thing.
"I got a lot of time to think about that," Paul said after the Clippers were eliminated by the Memphis Grizzlies. "As I do with any decision I make, I consult with my wife, my parents, my brother, my family. I might even let little Chris chime in on this. We'll see what happens."
After two years with the Clippers, shouldn't Paul know whether this is for him or not by now? Hasn't the organization either proven itself worthy or not yet?
Why wait? Why think on it? What's there to consult about? At least give a little hint …
Both teams will give them the maximum allowable contracts when they become eligible on July 1. Both will cede them influence over organizational and personnel decisions. Both will do whatever it takes to re-sign them.
|After two years with the Clippers, Chris Paul says he'll take his time in making his decision whether to return.|
And yet two very different men, who've gone through the process toward free agency in very different ways, said and did almost exactly the same things.
To the untrained eye, it might seem like theater. Wasting time just to waste time, basking in the glow of unnecessary drama, reveling in the power the situation momentarily affords them. Some of that is true.
But there are also several other, important reasons to take time:
"It's just good business," said a high-profile NBA agent. "It's in a player's best interest to see what direction a team is headed (roster, management, cap space, etc.) before committing himself for a number of years.
"I am not sure it's that the player is being 'guarded' about his intentions as much as gathering all the available information at his disposal prior to and including when free agency begins.
"It's really about making sure you're philosophically on the same page with the team and also that they're backing up that philosophy with deeds and actions."
Or, if you're the pessimistic sort, making sure something really weird doesn't happen.
You know, like the time Elton Brand recruited Baron Davis to the Clippers, only to have Brand change his mind and bolt for Philadelphia as a free agent?
Davis' news conference, just days after Brand had signed with the 76ers, was as awkward as any Southwest Airlines commercial scenario. And there was little Davis or his agent could've done to prevent it.
Ironically, part of the reason Brand changed his mind is that he realized he had sold himself short.
He'd been told the Clippers had $27 million in cap space to divide between himself and Davis. The deal was for him to take $14 million a season and Davis to take $13 million a season.
Only later, when Brand's agent, David Falk, got involved, he knew the Clippers actually could make more room -- and give Brand more -- by renouncing the rights to several players.
The Clippers ended up doing that when the 76ers offered Brand a five-year, $80-million deal, but it was too late. Brand felt short-changed, and wanted to get away.
It might seem like a small thing. There may have been misunderstandings on both sides. The truth is probably somewhere in between. But the underlying point is the same:
There is always more to consider. The details matter. And you can't always see those details clearly at first glance.
For instance, not all "max contracts" are created equal. Some have early termination options and player options built in, which allow the player to become a free agent after both the third and fourth years of a five-year contract.
Some have full 15 percent trade kickers. Some include provisions to pay a player up to 25 percent of his salary before Oct. 1, which allows the player to invest all that money himself for longer.
Any good agent will ask for all of these perks for a client, like Paul or Howard, in position to command a "max contract."
Any good agent will likely get all these goodies for a player like Paul or Howard.
But there's always more to get. And the biggest get of all is a no-trade clause. Only Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett have no-trade clauses -- a player must have eight years of service time, including four with the team that signs him -- to be eligible for a no-trade clause. (So neither Paul nor Howard would be eligible.)
Of those four aging legends, Bryant has by far the most lucrative contract in more ways than one. Not only will he make an NBA-highest $30.4 million in 2013-14, according to ESPN.com's salary cap analyst Larry Coon, Bryant's contract is structured to pay him $24,363,044 (or 80 percent) of his salary by Nov. 1, 2013.
That type of payment plan was amended in the new CBA, but Bryant's deal was grandfathered in -- which makes it the best contract in the NBA for at least one more season.
"We all pride ourselves on being businessmen to a certain extent," Bryant said, when asked about Howard's situation.
Indeed he is.
But this isn't just the type of thing accountants and agents get geeked up about.
It's about something far more simple and elemental.
There are just a few times in a player's career when he has the leverage to influence his franchise. There are even fewer times when a player has the opportunity to choose his own destiny.
There's power in those moments. Power that must be considered carefully, because it doesn't last long.
So forgive Paul and Howard if they want to take their time with it.
"It's like high school recruiting," another agent said. "Most kids know where they're going, but the more attention is put on their decision, and the more time they have to think about it, the more time they'll take.
"They might say they don't like the attention, but they do."
They've also learned enough along the way to make that attention valuable.