Dwight Howard trade: Lakers show more commitment to winning

The moment he hung up the phone Thursday, Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak stared across the room at Coach Mike Brown.

Kupchak had just ended a conference call with officials of the Orlando Magic, Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers, the final chapter of what Kupchak described as a “frustrating” process in pursuing Dwight Howard.

After all, the Magic spent over a year weighing every trade proposal imaginable, while Howard gave mixed signals on his intentions. Once that phone conversation ended, though, Howard became a Laker. Kupchak recalled the conversation with Brown:


“We have a deal,” Kupchak said.

“Who are we getting?” Brown asked.

“Dwight Howard,” Kupchak answered.

“Who’s going out?” Brown asked.

“Andrew,” Kupchak answered, referring to center Andrew Bynum, who will now play with the 76ers.

“That’s all?” Brown asked.

“That’s all,” said Kupchak, though the trade also involved sending reserve forwards Josh McRoberts and Christian Eyenga and protected first-round and second-round picks to Orlando for forward Earl Clark and guard Chris Duhon.

Brown still struggled processing the news.

“No Pau?” Brown asked, in reference to Lakers forward Pau Gasol. After all, reports first indicated these talks would also include Gasol going to the Magic, and he had been the subject of endless trade speculation ever since the NBA nixed the Chris Paul deal, which would’ve sent Gasol to the Houston Rockets.

“No Pau,” Kupchak said.

Kupchak then recalled Brown leaping out of his chair and hugging him, an incident that prompted plenty of reporters to chuckle as he told the story.

The incident highlighted two realities: Plenty of Lakers fans would also like to hug Kupchak and executive vice president Jim Buss for landing what could be the Lakers’ next franchise player. It also reveals the understandable skepticism that even Lakers supporters had on whether team officials could pull off such a deal without giving up significant assets. Fulfilling such a goal under a more restrictive collective bargaining agreement seemed doubtful.

But the Lakers pulled it off.

They acquired an elite point guard in Steve Nash. They added secondary scoring in Antawn Jamison. The Lakers re-signed surprise forward Jordan Hill. On the same night they agreed to the Howard trade, the Lakers reached agreement with reserve shooting guard Jodie Meeks on a two-year, $3-million deal. Meanwhile, the Lakers still boast Kobe Bryant, Gasol and Metta World Peace.

The Lakers are accustomed to making such big moves. As Kupchak reminded reporters: Ever since Jerry Buss bought the Lakers in 1979, “it always seems like they’ve figured out a way to make things happen.” The Lakers have 16 NBA championships and 24 Hall of Famers as proof. But this feels different.

The Lakers publicly indicated they needed to cut salary to adjust to the new labor deal, which forces more revenue sharing and more luxury-tax penalties. It seemed they pursued that path when they dumped the salaries of Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher, two crucial role players who could’ve helped the Lakers finish beyond the Western Conference semifinals.

Kupchak maintained that all fit into the larger picture. The Fisher trade landed the Lakers the sudden surprise in Hill. The Odom deal gave them a $8.9-million trade exception they used as part of Nash’s three-year, $27-million deal. One could argue that the Lakers wisely just reversed course and were ignoring luxury-tax implications, but it doesn’t matter. Their willingness to have a $99-million payroll, including Howard’s $19.5-million salary, shows they still put no price tag on NBA championships.

“Dr. Buss is a very competitive owner, and his family is also very competitive,” Kupchak said. “And when it comes down to making a decision about a couple dollars or a million dollars or $10 million or putting another banner up? He can’t help himself. He chooses to go for the banner.”

It’s a no-brainer that landing Howard puts the Lakers in a better position to do that. It also helps their 25-year, $5-billion deal with Time Warner Cable, according to The Times’ Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner. But the Lakers still had plenty of risks to consider

Bynum had just posted career highs last season in points and rebounds, survived his first season without a major injury and appeared in his first All-Star game. His exit interview with Kupchak and Brown lasted 90 minutes, largely to deal with his well-documented maturity issues. But Kupchak maintained that variable never concerned him, and it would’ve been understandable if the Lakers had just stayed the course.

At the same time, Howard has made no indication he will come back after the upcoming season, though The Times’ T.J. Simers reported that Howard told the Lakers he would sign a five-year deal once he becomes a free agent. It would make sense. The Times’ Bresnahan and Turner reported that Howard could sign with the Lakers after the season and get a five-year $117.9-million contract, as opposed to a maximum four-year, $87.6-million deal with another team. But the Magic has seen Howard flake out, and should the Lakers fail to win a title, there’s no telling if he would see the Dallas Mavericks or Brooklyn Nets as greener pastures.

“We’re operating under a new collective bargaining agreement so things are going to continue to evolve and change,” said Jeanie Buss, the Lakers executive vice president of business operations. “That makes it hard. I’m one of those people that don’t like change at all. I’d rather just keep everything the same. But that’s the nature of the business. But a move like this makes us more interesting.”

It also fulfills the Lakers’ win-first, ask-questions-later mind-set. It also explains why Kupchak hardly felt like gloating after the deal, and even delayed going on vacation with his family.

“There’s really no time for that,” Kupchak said.

Instead, Kupchak and the front office are devoting their time to ensuring more winning, and the dealing with the costs and risks that go with that goal.

“One thing the organization is not afraid to do is take a risk or take a gamble,” Kupchak said. “Certainly being in Los Angeles, we’re afforded the ability to take more gambles than a lot of other cities. We have a great city to sell, great reputation and great heritage. We’re fortunate to have ownership that’s not afraid to roll the dice.”


Dwight Howard imitates Kobe Bryant‘s voice, eager to follow him

E-mail the Lakers blog at Follow the Lakers blog on Twitter.