Howard deal proves NBA same as it ever was

Larger-market teams such as Lakers prove to remain league's biggest risk-takers. And is that so bad?

If you’re a fan of a small-market NBA team, you’re probably cursing the Dwight Howard trade.

You probably heard that Howard has been dealt to the already stacked and traditionally powerful Lakers and wonder what the lockout was all about.

You probably think the new collective-bargaining agreement failed — that superstars will always dictate where they land, that the so-called “super teams” will always exist.

And you’re probably right.

But before you get too fired up, there are a few things to consider.

First, let’s get the new CBA out of the way. It really doesn’t kick in until next summer, when penalties for exceeding the salary cap become the most severe. Basically, if you go over the cap, you lose all flexibility and end up paying more for players than what you might receive for selling the franchise. So most teams, regardless of market, will be extremely hesitant to do it, winning be damned.

Second, the Lakers didn’t land Howard from Orlando without taking a gamble. While they are confident Howard will sign a long-term deal, they were offered no guarantees, no assurances even, as he heads to free agency next summer.

Same goes for Andrew Bynum, who was traded from the Lakers to Philadelphia. Bynum was probably as surprised by the deal as the rest of us. After all, the 76ers were never really mentioned as a potential trade partner until earlier this week.

Bynum has given no indication of his plans — other than, of course, to test the market in 2013.

Yet the Lakers and the Sixers made the deal anyway. It’s the same deal that smaller market teams had every opportunity to make. Difference is, the Lakers and Sixers are risk takers, and that has nothing to do with the lockout or new CBA. It’s just the way they run things. They do it with confidence, with a willingness to aim for greatness every season.

Is Howard more likely to stay in L.A. than, say, Milwaukee? Well, you’d sure think so. Then again, he’d be walking away from a much larger deal than an opposing team could give him if he left in free agency. That's true of any team for which he plays.

Anyway, on to the third point, and that’s the idea that the NBA has always been considered a four or five team league. In that aspect, it’s really no different than baseball, or college football, or even the NFL.

Actually, most people thought the NBA consisted of just three teams in the 1980s — Boston, Philadelphia and the Lakers. And a lot of folks consider that the league’s Golden Era.

Then came the 1990s, when everyone knew Chicago would win it all as long as Michael Jordan stayed healthy. Everyone else was playing for second. Yet the league flourished.

So while the Howard trade might seem disastrous to fans of teams in mid-size cities, it does not to fans of the entire league. 

And again, no one forced the Magic’s hand to trade Howard to the Lakers. Other potential deals existed. If you remember correctly, deputy commissioner Adam Silver stressed that the new CBA was set up to allow “well-managed teams” to have a chance at competing. The not-so-well-managed? Well, they’re on their own.

Finally, here’s a cold, hard reality about pro basketball:

The NBA would be terrified if Charlotte and Memphis met in the Finals. Merchandise sales would plummet. Ratings would be awful. Twitter buzz would be non-existent.

Don’t misunderstand. The league wants those franchises to be competitive and above all else, profitable. They want every team to possess a major selling point entering every season, to endure. 

That is really what the new CBA is all about.

But there is no real way to govern teams from making trades with whom they want to make trades. There is no way to force organizations to take risks they don’t want to take. There is no rule that states franchises have to go all in every year, to ignore the future for the present.

That, more than anything, is why Howard was traded to where he was, why the Lakers are stacked, why Bynum belongs to the Sixers, why the Magic are crossing their fingers and hoping for the best, and why just about everyone else is on the outside looking in.