After two years of trade requests and petulance and a stock-lowering season with the Lakers, it's time for the Dwight Howard free agency sweepstakes—and four teams have emerged as potential landing spots should Howard decide to leave L.A.
This is not a competition for a typical max player. If Howard's not damaged goods, he's at least slightly cursed. He forced Stan Van Gundy out, even as he spent a year trying to leave Orlando. When the Lakers gave up Andrew Bynum in a four-way trade to get Howard, every team won the deal—except the ones who got Howard or Bynum. He battled injury in Los Angeles, and played on an old, injury-wracked roster, and even as the Lakers seemed to get it together for a playoff run, Kobe Bryant went down. The fact is the Lakers have no idea how Howard fits in on their roster, even as other potential free agency destinations could be forgiven for fearing the worst-case scenario: a surly, ineffective, four-year albatross.
But he's still a damned good big man, one of the league's best, and he's just 27. The Lakers paid a grand total of $129.5 million for their roster this past season—including more than twice as much in luxury tax as the second-worst offender—but it's time to build that team around someone else. Pau Gasol's probably on his way out and Kobe Bryant can't play forever. The Lakers need Howard, perhaps, more than Howard needs the Lakers. And as Howard addressed the media following his exit interview with GM Mitch Kupchak, he didn't sound like a man hell-bent on staying.
"I want to get away from everything and focus on me and making the decision for me...For me, I'm going to do what's best for myself, what's going to make me happy."
The math is simple enough. The Lakers can offer more money and more years. The four potential suitors—the Rockets, Mavericks, Clippers, and Hawks—can offer fresh starts, and maybe even better teams.
- CBS Sports reports that Houston "intrigues" Howard the most, and we know Daryl Morey has made a run at him before. The young roster, complete with a leader (Harden), a gunner (Parsons), a complementary big man (Asik) and a coach who puts defense first (McHale), sounds like a perfect situation for Howard. Then, so did Los Angeles.
- The CBS report also names the Mavericks as a team that could clear the space to afford Howard, and Dirk Nowitzki has said he's willing to take a major pay cut to help the team land a max free agent this summer. There's a cash bonus too. In Dallas, as Houston, Howard wouldn't have to pay state income tax.
- After the Clippers' unexpected first-round exit, the Dallas Morning News passed along whispers that L.A. is going to spend the summer clearing space to make a major splash in free agency. The Clippers believe they will re-sign Chris Paul, and still be able to land Howard on a max deal. It'll take some creative accounting, but the Clips are already the sexy team in Los Angeles for the near future.
- The Atlanta Hawks have tons of space—enough for two max players—and could afford both Howard and Chris Paul. The two have admitted they'd like to play together, and Atlanta might be the only place that could make it happen. There's a big Stan Van Gundy-sized wrench that could be thrown into the works, however.
But this is not the Summer of LeBron, where a signed contract guarantees years of dominance. This is more like a Long, Dark Dwight of the Soul, and any team that lands Howard commits to a flawed, mercurial centerpiece for four long years—and the Heat's Big Three and Carmelo Anthony could go on the market as early as 2014. Dwight Howard can be great, an anchor in the paint. He could also be an anchor around the neck of any franchise that gives out a max deal just because it can.