OK, so the Nets made several offers that included Brook Lopez and several different combinations of players and draft picks, along with three first round picks, for Dwight Howard. Houston has prepared to go all in, amnestying Luis Scola and clearing space to re-sign him after this season. The Lakers reportedly have not given up, either. The conventional wisdom of the day says that the Magic should jump on some offer, now, before it’s too late. After all, you can’t just let Howard leave and get nothing in return. According to some of the late chatter today the Magic aren’t really going for this; I applaud them. If they’re not going to keep Howard their best bet is, in my opinion, to just let him go. Yes, you read that right. Just let him go. When you have a guy who’s a top five player in the league, and things have soured to the point where he either wants out or management wants him out, trying to trade him tends to work out better for the team getting than the team dealing him. Look at the history:
Wilt Chamberlain – twice traded for three players. The San Francisco Warriors traded him to Philadelphia midway through the 1964-65 season, who traded him to the Lakers before the 1968-69 season. The players that were brought back varied quality; some were double figure scorers, others were out of the league soon. In both instances the team that dealt him away managed to tread water for a few years before bottoming out, while the team that acquired him would win a title within a few years.
Kareem Abdul Jabbar – traded for Brian Winters, Junior Bridgeman, Elmore Smith, and Dave Meyers. All four players were double figure scorers after arriving in Milwaukee but Smith and Meyers were out of the league four years later. Bridgeman and Winters were important players on the Don Nelson coached teams that gave headaches to the Sixers and Celtics in the East playoffs of the early eighties. But Jabbar would go on to win five rings with the Lakers, easily surpassing everything his former team did from the time they traded him.
Charles Barkley – traded for Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry, and Andrew Lang. Hornacek had recently made an All Star team, but Lang and Perry were bench players. The Phoenix Suns would be in the Finals the same season they acquired Barkley, while the Sixers would be a lottery team for the next several years.
Shaquille O’Neal – traded for Brian Grant, Caron Butler, and Lamar Odom and two draft picks. The Miami Heat would win it all two years after getting O’Neal, while the Lakers would miss the playoffs entirely their first years without him then lose in the first round for another two years. They won the title in 2009, only after totally overhauling their roster.
So why does this happen? The players brought back for the superstar are often good NBA players, guys who score in double figures and are good contributors. Conventional wisdom suggests that getting three or four guys who combine to score more points and grab more rebounds than the guy you’re giving up would work in your favor. But it doesn’t. In basketball, individual quality trumps quantity. One Wilt Chamberlain, or Shaquille O’Neal, or Lebron James trumps several good players. One dominant force influences the game, from his own production to the residual effect on his teammates, in a way that three good ones do not. The fourth or fifth starter playing next to Wilt or Shaq or Lebron is freed up to do things that the fourth or fifth starter playing with three good players is not; just ask Robert Horry. The value of this quality of player goes far beyond statistics; there is simply no easy way to replace them. Having one of them is like being married; if it goes bad, you can’t just swap them out for something that adds up to them on paper. Replacing them will be an arduous process, depending more on providence than anything you actually do, and will require you to let go of them so you can both move on.
So listen up Magic brass: let him go. Don’t saddle yourself with pieces that aren’t going to help you. Clean the stables, get bad, and get lucky. It’s the only way. You don’t have to ‘get something’ for him now, because what you get won’t match what you had. Hall of Famers who stay in one team their whole careers usually reside in Boston or L.A. There are some exceptions, like Tim Duncan and maybe Dwyane Wade, but that’s it. Get over it and move on.