The time has come for the Nets to make their move.
After almost a year of wrangling caused by Dwight Howard's childish need to be the center of attention 24 hours a day while remaining clueless, the Nets have to know whether or not they have a trade with the Magic in the next 12 hours or so.
Portland and Charlotte are reportedly readying offers for Brook Lopez, the restricted free agent who is the key chip in any trade with Orlando, and the Nets will not be able to make a deal when those offers come.
The Nets are working hard to make sure things don't come to that; they've guaranteed the first four years of a maximum salary offer to Lopez, with the promise of a fifth year that would push his total compensation to $78 million. It is an insane contract for a player who played just five games last year and has averaged a paltry number of rebounds despite being very tall and positioned near the hoop.
Neither the Blazers nor Bobcats could offer Lopez the fifth year, which is the last ace in the hole that the Nets have in their disposal to keep the clock running on a Howard trade because Lopez can refuse other offers in hopes of that fifth year. The Nets are still working to do a sign-and-trade with Orlando involving Lopez, leaving out all the other teams that were involved earlier in the week -- but the Magic's desire to get someone useful (and more affordable than an overpaid Lopez) in return for Howard could ultimately be the sticking point.
In past years, the Nets winding up as bridesmaids would be a devastating blow, but it doesn't feel nearly as fraught this time around. Getting Howard would be a major coup, of course, but the move to Brooklyn and the presence of the Deron Williams-Joe Johnson backcourt means that there's still plenty of reason to look forward to the future.
Unfortunately, we can't say the same about the offseasons to come. The NBA locked out the players last year in order to give teams more power in negotiations, but the result was the exact opposite. Star players now have all the leverage in the world.
Shortening the maximum length of contracts to four or five years means that players have multiple opportunities to become free agents during the course of their careers -- first overall pick Anthony Davis will have at least three chances if he develops as expected -- and that means they have multiple chances to pick any spot they want. Since those spots are always going to be big markets, the small-market owners who pushed hardest for the lockout will wind up as feeders for the gargantuan teams while getting table scraps in return via trade.
Throw in the supersized luxury tax that will keep teams from re-signing every one of their own free agents, and you've got a scenario that leads to massive turnover every time July rolls around. The league won't worry so long as there are still superstar-laden teams to drive ratings, but it won't make for the kind of balanced league that the NBA and owners promised when they finally ended the lockout.
That's all tangential to the Nets' decision, and no one in Brooklyn will care about the rest of the implications if Howard is getting announced at the first game in the borough. They probably won't be thinking about it if Lopez should be the man in the middle either, but they'll be thinking about it a lot in the years to come as the NBA becomes a league where the only way to build a team is to have a superstar decide he wants to play in your uniform.