John Smallwood: Sixers, Lakers go from big winners in deal to big losers

No one expected an ugly spat to brew between longtime Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant and new arrival Dwight Howard.    JARED WICKERHAM / GETTY IMAGES
No one expected an ugly spat to brew between longtime Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant and new arrival Dwight Howard.    JARED WICKERHAM / GETTY IMAGES
Posted: February 10, 2013

I CAN'T RECALL, off the top of my head, the last time a trade worked out so badly for the teams that supposedly acquired the best

players.

When the Sixers and Los Angeles Lakers got together with the Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets to pull off a complicated, multiplayer deal in August, the assumption was that the Lakers had made a coup by stealing All-Star center Dwight Howard from the Magic and that the Sixers had made a strong leap forward in credibility by acquiring

All-Star center Andrew Bynum from the Lakers.

At the time, I thought that, at the minimum, both teams would play in their respective conference finals, with the outside chance of meeting in the NBA

Finals.

My preseason pick for NBA champion was the Lakers over the Miami Heat.

Even in mid-December, when Bynum hadn't practiced with the Sixers and the Lakers were struggling to be a .500 team, I thought that things ultimately would turn around enough for both teams to make the playoffs.

As the NBA gets ready for the upcoming All-Star Break, things have gone from bad to worse.

Nothing has changed for the Sixers concerning Bynum, who still has not played because of knee trouble. Meanwhile, Jason Richardson, also acquired in the trade, is set for season-ending knee surgery. Not to mention, injuries to others and the team's inability to match up in too many games make it hard to envision the Sixers sneaking into the playoffs.

Still, as bad as things are for the Sixers, they probably are worse for the Lakers.

Not only are they 10th in the Western Conference standings, but the dysfunctional relationship between Howard and longtime superstar and team leader Kobe Bryant looks as if it could destroy the Lakers' short- and long-term aspirations.

Earlier in the week, Bryant and Howard got into another public spat, with Bryant questioning Howard's willingness to play through the pain of a shoulder injury, and Howard responding by telling Bryant to basically kiss his backside.

"We don't have time for [Howard's shoulder] to heal," Bryant said. "We need some urgency. [Dwight] has never been in a position where someone is driving him as hard as I am, as hard as this organization is.

"It's win a championship, or everything is a complete failure. That's just how we do it. And that's foreign to him."

Howard, who actually played the next game after Bryant's rant, shot back that Bryant was not a doctor and that his long-term career took a bit more precedence.

"I want to play," he said, "but at the same time, this is my career, this is my future, this is my life. I can't leave that up to anybody else, because nobody else is going to take care of me.

"So, if people are pissed off that I don't play or if I do play, whatever it may be, so what? This is my career. If I go down, then what? Everybody's life is going to go on. I don't want to have another summer where I'm rehabbing and trying to get healthy again."

Lakers management must tread around this with extreme caution. Howard is an unrestricted free agent after the season.

Unlike the Sixers, who have a secondary plan to use the cap-space relief they would get if Bynum left through unrestricted free agency, the Lakers made the trade with no other contingency except Howard's signing an extension.

Even if they took the $19.2 million Howard makes off the books, their payroll would be at $78.1 million - with $30.4 million going to Bryant.

There is no scenario in which the league salary cap will rise enough for them to replace Howard via free agency.

The assumption is that Howard will re-sign with the Lakers because they can offer him more years and more money, using their "Larry Bird rights." Howard would get $116 million to stay in LA. But that is no longer a given.

When Howard's 5-year, $82.3 million contract expires, he will have made more than $100 million in his first eight

seasons. As a free agent, he can sign a maximum deal of 4 years worth $86.7 million. There will be no shortage of teams willing to give him that.

Yes, the Lakers' ability to offer $30 million more is enticing, but if Howard signed a 4-year deal elsewhere, he would still be only 31 when it ended, and then be an unrestricted free agent again.

Bryant, who has acknowledged he is not the easiest person to be a teammate with, will not change, and Howard might not think it would better for him to be happy somewhere else.

The Lakers reportedly have told Howard they will not trade him, but if I were Los Angeles GM Mitch Kupchak, I'd make a few calls to Brooklyn to see whether the Nets were still interested in Howard.

Brooklyn was where Howard most wanted to go when he forced his way out of Orlando.

The Nets, who are tied with Chicago for fourth in the East, can offer first-time All-Star center Brook Lopez, who is signed through 2015-16, for Howard.

That would be infinitely better for the Lakers than having Howard walk after the season and getting nothing, including cap space, in return.

The Sixers wish they had a similar option.

If Bynum were playing while not fitting in, they would be a position to move him at the trade deadline. But no team will give up much for a guy, even an All-Star who might be the second best big man in the NBA, if he hasn't shown he can be healthy enough to play.

On paper the Sixers and Lakers thought they had made franchise-altering trades. Who knew both would be altered in the wrong direction.


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Columns: philly.com/Smallwood

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