An aging big man and a max contract: recipe for disaster.
Last week reports came out that former Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard would consider a return to the franchise through his upcoming free agency (should he decline his player option for next season). This week, another former Magic center, who actually left the team during free agency, voiced his approval of the potential move.
Basically, Shaq thinks Dwight should come back to the Magic. Now, I’m not sure why Shaquille O’Neal thinks this, or that he even does: my own take is that he mumbled something at the reporter who was too scared to ask again and had to make up some vague quote about it ‘being good for the city’. But then again, Shaq will endorse anything.
Regardless, the Magic should take note of the unwritten rule that ‘if Dwight Howard and Shaquille O’Neal are the only people who think it is a good idea, then it probably isn’t a good idea’. It is easy to see how the link has formed, the Magic have the cap space in the summer for a max contract free-agent, should they want one, but are not realistic suitors of the likes of Kevin Durant and Al Horford. This puts them firmly in the market for the next tier of ‘borderline All-Star’ free agents, the likes of Mike Conley, Harrison Barnes and Hassan Whiteside, who will all also demand a max contract for their services come the start of the new season. The dwindling Dwight Howard belongs to this group and due to the Magic’s need for a rim-protecting centre, it is easy to see how the dots have been connected. On top of this is the old adage of unfinished business, that this could be the B-movie version to Lebron’s return to Cleveland, due to the bad terms on which Howard first left the organisation. This, it appears, has given the rumor some credence and plausibility, as well as a sense of romanticism and intrigue. If you are Dwight Howard. Or Dwight Howard’s mother. Or 6.
Hassan Whiteside of the Miami Heat. Not Dwight Howard.
My point is this: the Magic shouldn’t be trying to sign Dwight Howard. No self-respecting franchise should. And not because of the personality issues or the manner in which he forced his way out of Florida the first time round. Here’s why.
When was the last time signing an aging big man to a max or a near-max contract ended well? Did it ever end well? Ever since Amar’e Stoudemire’s knees crippled the hopes and dreams of the New York Knicks, teams should be extremely wary of giving aging big-men multi-year max deals. Especially when they have an injury history, as Howard does. Yet they don’t seem to learn. Only last year, Tyson Chandler and Omer Asik were handed two of the biggest free agent contracts of the summer. Despite what you may hear about the cap projections, there is no world in which $60 million over 5 years for a 29 year old Omer Asik made or will ever make sense. Similarly, the hapless Phoenix Suns decided to spend $52 million on a 4 year deal for The Artist Formerly Known as Tyson Chandler, who was already 33(!) at the time. These are the worst moves teams can make, particularly those with developing rosters, as it ties up all the potential cap-space they save on their younger players in huge untradeable contracts . More often than not, it ends in a buyout, a one-sided salary dump trade that costs picks, or an amnesty. Just ask Anderson Varejao. Or Roy Hibbert. Or Kendrick Perkins.
Golden State's Festus Ezeli. Also not Dwight Howard.
Dwight Howard is much better than those guys I just listed, let’s not forget that. He will still lock-down the paint, get you 10 rebounds a game and turn back the clock at the business end of the season. Playoff Dwight is still a thing. However, his offensive game is beyond diminished. It wasn’t great to begin with; Howard’s only post moves after three years with Hakeem Olajuwon AND Kevin McHale are an ugly spin and hook shot that hits the glass and then the rim, or simply being bigger and stronger than the other guy defending him. That is his whole offensive repertoire. Despite this, he will demand touches. Particularly if James Harden isn’t around to gaze blankly at him when he shouts for the ball and just drive into the lane or hit a step-back three anyway. Dwight WAS a star player. For these guys, it doesn’t change. In his head he still is. It’s why Josh Smith couldn’t stop chucking away from beyond the arc and why Rajon Rondo couldn’t take orders of Rick Carlisle. Their egos are built up way too much and then they refuse to accept less as their talents deteriorate, along with their bodies.
The most beautiful move of them all - 'The Dwightshake'
Howard had season-ending back surgery in 2012 and he didn’t look the same during the following season, and not just because he was sporting Lakers’ purple and gold and an ill-advised headband. On top of this, he missed half of the 2014-15 season with persistent knee trouble. The guy is gradually breaking down, there are no two ways about it. It happens, and it happens sooner than you think to big men. On paper he is only 30, but he has been banging down low with NBA centers since he was 18, it takes its toll. Howard may yet add wrinkles to his play to extend his longevity in the league, but I’d be surprised. He just doesn’t have the game to last another decade à la Duncan and Garnett.
Deep down Dwight knows this. Which is why he will he opt out of a guaranteed $23 million next season with the Houston Rockets and seek one last multi-year max contract with a gullible franchise. And someone will bite. The cap room explosion and a top-heavy free agency class mean that in some instances teams will have more money than they know what to do with, the perfect storm for albatross contracts that will have fans screaming into their pillows in a year’s time.
Dwight Howard still has a couple of solid years left in him, but after that, he will transform from 'Dwight Howard - Basketball Player' into 'Dwight Howard's Expiring Contract'. Let's hope it's not on the Magic.