Numbers don’t add up on some Howard free-agent reports

The Dwight Howard sweepstakes reached the apex of their annoyingness late last week.

This may prove untrue in a week, when intrepid journalists start rummaging through Dwight Howard’s trash for clues regarding his impending free-agent decision, but I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway. It might be a quiet kind of annoying, a subtle kind, but it’s the worst.

It’s the worst because we’ve brought it upon ourselves. It’s the worst because for once, it has little, if anything, to do with Howard’s machinations or lack thereof.

This time, it’s on journalists, the same group that loves nothing more than to pontificate about Howard’s indecision, bad decisions, lack of a decision … you get the picture.

This time, it’s a matter of twisted information. It’s a matter of people who should know better putting out numbers that ignore certain facts. It’s a matter of a lack of recognition that the general public has not, in fact, memorized the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement and salary cap information – or perhaps it’s a matter of intentionally capitalizing on that.

Any casual observer of the NBA knows that at this point there’s a shortlist of teams with which Howard might sign: the Lakers, Rockets, Mavericks and Hawks. Maybe another will emerge, but it’s unlikely.

More serious observers know the ins and outs of how he will sign, that the Lakers can pay him more, $118 million over five years, that other teams can offer just $88 million over four. Anyone with third-grade math skills can do the division and see that comes out to $23.6 million per year in Los Angeles, $22 million elsewhere, and then, of course, there’s the fact that in Dallas and Houston, Texas’ lack of state income tax would erase that discrepancy.

It all seems pretty simple, right? More money some places, more years one place, now pick a team. It all seems pretty simple, but it’s not.

The biggest problem in the discussion of Howard that’s arisen lately is that it’s fudging its way into the nuances of the CBA and salary cap, not even that far but far enough that reasonably outlandish ideas are forming. It’s partly for shock value, for a new story as the overall Howard narrative gets ever more stale, and partly because sometimes numbers are complicated.

The NBA’s CBA can at times read like one giant loophole, one of those “choose your own adventure” children’s books that routes you back to the same spot over and over again. There are clauses contingent on what came before, too many exceptions to make sense of and a million and a half ways to get around most anything, it can seem.

Still, that’s no excuse for what went on last week, and will likely continue up to and beyond July 1.

Last week, in what appeared at first to be a parallel universe, there was a small faction of Twitter speculation involving the words Dwight Howard and San Antonio, two things that should only be associated with the sentence “Dwight Howard will never plan in San Antonio because Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan would rather trade themselves to the Bobcats than see that happen.” (It was enough chatter, in fact, to warrant a somewhat incredulous blog post from the San Antonio paper.)

One tweet (from a writer I won’t identify but who is affiliated with a respected publication and has upwards of 14,000 Twitter followers) put forth a list of teams with which Howard could potentially sign: Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, San Antonio, Los Angeles (the Lakers, I presume) and Brooklyn. As you can see, one of these things is very much not like the others.

The second tweet piggybacks off the list and goes into the San Antonio “situation.” (That had to be in quotes, because really, think about it.) It read: “San Antonio has just $32.8 million in salary commits and could have as much as $26 million in capspace (sic) in July.”

There are several flaws in this information. First of all, that $32.8 million number accounts for neither Manu Ginobili nor Tiago Splitter, two free agents who will more than likely return (and with decently high price tags). It also ignores that Boris Diaw has a nearly $5 million player option that he’ll probably exercise and that Matt Bonner’s partially guaranteed deal even exits.

In reality, the Spurs are on the books for close to $42 million next season, before accounting for the Splitter and Ginobili contracts, which will likely add another $15 million to the team’s payroll if Ginobili chooses not to retire. Even if the guard does bow out after this season, the Spurs will still have close to $50 million in salary obligations.

The NBA salary cap is $58.5 million. Call me crazy, but Dwight Howard is not signing for whatever change the Spurs have left over, and putting aside the fact that he is maybe the last player who should ever put on San Antonio’s gray and black, money talks.

That’s not all.

Last Friday, a good portion of country woke up to a report that Dwight Howard and Chris Paul had been texting about wanting to team up next season and that Atlanta and the Clippers could make that happen. It was a free-agent news bonanza, with one distinction: This scenario is highly improbable, if not close to impossible.

Long story short, and barring some major roster slash-and-burn, in order for the Clippers to pair the two, they’d have to get rid of Blake Griffin in a sign-and-trade with the Lakers. In order for the Hawks to do it, either Paul, Howard or both would have to take a pay cut.

Neither of those things is happening, for reasons as varying as the Lakers not wanting to complete a sign-and-trade, Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s love of Griffin and the unlikelihood of either player taking a pay cut.

I feel like I’m launching into cranky, get-off-my-lawn journalism at this point, but it has to be said: Free agency is the worst time to blindly believe anything numbers-related. Just because a team’s cap obligations are published and technically correct doesn’t mean they’re all-encompassing, especially at this time of year. They might not account for pending free agents whom the team will do anything to re-sign, team options, player options or players coming from overseas. There’s so much gray area in all of this, so many possible trades and too many eager people dragging names into the online trade machine.

But remember this: Technically, Dwight Howard could sign with the Bobcats for their $2.5 million midlevel exception. Keep that in mind any time a new rumored team, or deal, or superstar pairing arises.

Could vs. will, or even might, is a big difference.