Are you happy that the interminable saga surrounding Dwight Howard’s next destination is mercifully over?
Yeah, us too.
Most NBA observers – and we’re talking about everyone from Commissioner David Stern to billionaire owners to sleep-deprived GMs to fellow superstars to media members to fans to forum flamers – are mentally moving on from Howard now that he finally has been traded from the Orlando Magic to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Yes, there is a faction of folks who feel there may be a surprise ending. That group is headed by a billionaire owner from Texas who has dabbled in movies, and the script goes something like this: Howard continues his goofball behavior. Kobe Bryant chides him privately. Howard ignores Bryant. Bryant blasts him in public. Lakers don’t win the title. Bryant and the media blame Howard. Howard leaves via free agency for Dallas.
Possible? of course. When it comes to Howard, anything’s possible.
But it is highly unlikely, given that Howard has been living in Los Angeles since the end of the season and has gained a taste for the Left Coast. The almost inevitable endgame will be that he re-signs with the Lakers, one of his initial choice destinations.
So who’s next?
Who is the next player whose petulance holds the entire league hostage for months on end? Who is the next player whose diva behavior would shame the Kardashians? Who is the next player whose moving lips are a dead giveaway for his lies?
Who is the next player who rattles off desired destinations as if they are part of a wedding registry? Who is the next player whose agent plants so many stories he should be on HGTV? Who is the next player to lay waste to his GM, coach and team to simply satisfy his elite entourage of me, myself and I?
There has been a recent run of these guys, from LeBron James to Carmelo Anthony to Howard. All three were superstars stuck in smallish markets looking for something bigger and better to satisfy their enormous egos.
And while the new CBA does make it more lucrative for a player to stay put, it also makes the contract extension virtually meaningless, assuring that these soap operas will continue, just with different cast members.
Here they are.
2013 FREE AGENCY
ANDREW BYNUM: The best center not named Dwight Howard will be the most coveted free agent next summer. He just moved from the No. 2 market, where the only way he could emerge from the daunting shadow of Kobe Bryant was to act like a complete knucklehead. He now resides in Philadelphia and has a chance to own the No. 4 market if he sticks around. On the plus side, he is an hour from his New Jersey home. But he is now playing in front of a demanding blue-collar fan base which once booed Santa Claus. The determining variables will be Bynum’s ability to stay healthy and manage the demands of being the alpha dog.
CHRIS PAUL: He already has been down this road – albeit very briefly – in forcing his exit from New Orleans and somehow has gotten a pass from the same media and fans who raked James and Howard over the coals for similar behavior. In the past, he has backtracked on comments, getting himself in some trouble. He already has said he is not signing an extension but also spent the summer recruiting free agents to play in LA. Blake Griffin’s max extension and a burgeoning rivalry with the Lakers are excellent reasons for him to stay. But the Clippers need to name a GM ASAP to continually stroke his ego – and make sure he has a say in the next coach after Vinny Del Negro is inevitably deemed expendable.
JAMES HARDEN & SERGE IBAKA: On first blush, both of these restricted free agents don’t appear to be max players. But Harden is a Sixth Man Award winner whom many GMs envision as a starter and Ibaka could be Defensive Player of the Year if he repeats last season. Thunder GM Sam Presti’s problem is that he has about $42 million committed to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins in 2013-14, which means maxing out Harden and Ibaka puts OKC in supertax territory with just five players. And before you say Perkins should be traded, keep in mind that he has shown he can defend Howard straight up. Neither Harden nor Ibaka will hold the sway of Bynum or Paul. But it sure looks like only one will stay, and the one to go can be extremely picky about where he plays.
2014 FREE AGENCY
LEBRON JAMES, DWYANE WADE & CHRIS BOSH: Sorry to break up the perpetual party, Miami, but each of the Heatles has a player option for the 2014-15 season. Let’s say the Heat doesn’t get it done in either of the next two seasons, with one of their playoff tapouts coming before the NBA Finals – not an implausible scenario. At that point, the trio will have one title in four years, owner Micky Arison will be buried by the supertax and it may be time to move on. Wade will be 32, but Bosh will be 30 and James will be just 29. Decision II, anyone? Keep in mind that Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol (combined $47.7 million) in LA and Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion (combined $32 million) in Dallas will be at the end of their deals as well.
CARMELO ANTHONY: Yes, him again, too. He has a $23.5 million player option for the 2014-15 season and may opt out if the relentless scrutiny of the New York media continues to target him (as it rightfully should, given his alpha dog status). A couple more abbreviated postseasons with the accompanying finger-pointing could convince Melo to seek greener pastures and perhaps even hook up with his buddy James in another ostentatious orchestration as thirtysomethings. And if you think Anthony won’t leave that sort of money on the table, remember that he refused to sign a three-year, $65 million extension in Denver.
DEMARCUS COUSINS: The NBA’s third-best center might be its second-best two years from now, when he becomes a restricted free agent. Cousins has spent his first two seasons tantalizing everyone with his top-10 talent while tormenting everyone with his incidents of immaturity. The Kings are in a perpetual rebuilding loop and may not be in Sacramento in 2014. And if Cousins continues his childish behavior, there could be a clean break – and every GM will believe he can fix him.
2015 FREE AGENCY
KEVIN LOVE: The game’s best power forward can opt out of the final year of his four-year extension and become an unrestricted free agent. Given the poor weather and market size of the Twin Cities, the talk of Love leaving will start as soon as next spring if the Timberwolves are unable to crash the postseason party. Love already has said as much, threatening to leave if management does not make Minnesota a contender. The summer of 2015 also is when teammate Ricky Rubio comes due for an extension. Aside from James, Love has the greatest potential to compel the basketball world to chronicle his every word, deed and facial expression for months on end.
RAJON RONDO: Rondo’s current five-year, $55 million extension of his rookie contract did not come without some of saber-rattling and idle threats known as negotiating. The All-Star point guard of the Celtics did not deserve a max deal then but he will three years from now, when he will be just 29 – and the deals of teammates Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and Brandon Bass also expire. Given that Chris Paul and Deron Williams will be in their 30s, Rondo conceivably could be the top pure point guard in the game in 2015. He also could still be a somewhat moody personality who doesn’t want to be .
LEBRON JAMES, DWYANE WADE & CHRIS BOSH: They can all opt out again, this time with just one year remaining on their parallel deals.
2016 FREE AGENCY
KEVIN LOVE: Yup, him again. It should be noted that if he doesn’t opt out early, that bodes extremely well for the Timberwolves.
KEVIN DURANT: By this time, Durant should have two or three more scoring titles, at least one more trip to the NBA Finals and perhaps even a championship on his resume – all at the tender age of 27. But much of his future could be pegged to what happens next summer, when Harden and Ibaka are up for extensions. If economics prevent the Thunder from winning a title, Durant may decide to spend the second half of his career elsewhere – and that hysteria could even surpass the swirl around Howard.
Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Wednesday and Sunday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.