These are odd times for the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks.
Both clubs were expected to be among the elite teams in the Western Conference in the 2012-2013 season, but neither team is currently contending for a playoff spot. In fact, both clubs have similar records with Dallas owning a one-game lead over L.A. in the 11th spot in the West.
The big name that surrounds both clubs is Dwight Howard. Entering the season, many experts expected the Lakers to have found their missing piece by acquiring the superstar center, but Howard has so far not proven to be the key upgrade over Andrew Bynum’s 2011-2012 season.
While Howard’s numbers were expected to decline from his years with the Orlando Magic after back surgergy, there was anticipation that he would benefit the club in ways that don’t show up in the box score. The Lakers subpar defense has been considered a contributing factor for the team’s struggles, as Howard does not appear to be the dominating defensive presence he was in Orlando.
The trade deadline is less than one month away, and the Lakers may consider dealing the superstar center.
Howard, who is a free agent at the end of the season, had publicly stated last season that the Mavericks were one of the teams on his wish list. Dallas has several players with expiring contracts to offer L.A., which would help the Lakers create cap-room space, and almost certainly improve their depth.
The Lakers may not have many trade options beyond the Mavericks. The Brooklyn Nets were considered Howard’s top destination, but the club is short of both cap space and trade bait to acquire the 27-year-old.
Howard’s free-agent destinations at the end of the season remain limited. He will be entering his 10th season, and likely prefers to be with an organization that would be title contenders.
"I have it as Lakers, Dallas or Atlanta for Dwight," one Western Conference GM told ESPN, about where the free agent would sign.
Should Howard leave L.A. as a free agent, the Lakers would gain cap space, but also miss out on acquiring some much-need pieces to add talent. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to make a deal, despite the Lakers’ woes.
"I don't think we're at the point where you say, 'It's time for a trade,' and a trade happens in three to four days. That's just not how this league works," Kupchak said in a phone interview with ESPN.
Kupchak is regarded as among the best general managers in the league, and he certainly knows the high standards that Lakers fans expect from their team. The Lakers are a “win now” club because of Kobe Bryant’s possible retirement when his contract expires at the end of next season. Any deal that Kupchak makes will be with the intention that the Lakers are at least contenders for the title in the 2013-2014, considering their chances of even making the playoffs this season appear quite slim.
So if the Mavericks are in fact the most appealing trade partner for the Lakers, what players could be involved in a deal for Howard?
Dirk Nowitzki is considered the face of the Mavericks franchise, and owner Mark Cuban almost certainly would not part with him. Howard’s contract is worth nearly $20 million, so the Lakers would have to take on the next highest salaries on the Mavericks roster, other than Nowitzki.
Unless the Lakers and Mavericks decide to involve another team, any deal with Howard would almost certainly involve the next three highest-paid players: Shawn Marion, Chris Kaman, and O.J. Mayo.
While Kaman is expected to be a free agent at the end of the season, Marion and Mayo are under contract for next season. A deal involving Howard for the Mavericks trio would fit within the salary cap rules.
The Lakers may consider trying to expand the deal by offloading some bloated contracts. Los Angeles may way want to include Steve Blake in a deal. The injured point guard has barely played this season, and has overall been regarded as a disappointment. Blake is earning $4 million this season, and is under contract next season.
Chris Duhon is another contract that the Lakers would probably like to offload. The veteran point guard has one more year remaining on his deal, and L.A. would prefer a younger, more athletic player at the position.
The Mavericks could be hesitant to part with Mayo, who is averaging 18.2 points per game. With Nowitzki back in the lineup, Mayo’s scoring is likely to decrease, but he has proven to be a valuable perimeter threat on a team that lacks young depth at shooting guard. However, there is no other way to complete a deal for Howard unless the Mavericks add at least two more players, and the Lakers would probably not accept such a deal.
By adding Howard, the Mavericks would probably not miss Kaman, a center who has battled injuries and turns 31 in April. Kaman is averaging just 6.3 rebounds per game and 0.9 blocks per game.
The possible loss of Marion is more interesting. At age 34, it might be time for the Mavericks to consider parting ways with the forward. However, he remains a solid contributor, averaging 10.6 points per game, and 8.2 rebounds. Marion also has a reputation for being a tough defender.
The Lakers may have no choice but to deal Howard. The big man could leave as a free agent, and Bryant is growing impatient with the Lakers’ struggles.
Kupchak may need to give the Lakers another shake up beyond a coaching change, as the season has been such an enormous disappointment that few have much hope for the team with its present roster.
The big question for both clubs revolves around their opinion of Howard, and his ability to bounce back from back surgery. How valuable is Howard to a championship-contending club?