- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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DALLAS – Dirk Nowitzki described the Lakers as a “perfect situation” for Dwight Howard earlier this season, which isn’t exactly the best way to begin the recruiting pitch in an attempt to bring the NBA’s best big man to Dallas.
Of course, there’s been a ton of drama in Los Angeles since Dirk made that comment while venting frustration and expressing doubt about the Mavericks’ plan to “build around hope.” With the Lakers on the outside of the playoff picture looking in and Howard continuing to butt heads with Kobe Bryant, there’s legitimate reason to believe that Howard will seriously consider leaving $30-plus million on the table and leaving L.A. this summer.
“I guess you never know,” Nowitzki told ESPNDallas.com this week. “That’s up to Dwight. You never know what’s in a player’s mind. I don’t know him. I guess we just have to wait and see how the season ends for them. That’s something that’s out of our control.
“We’ll have to wait and see what happens there. They’ve had some issues -- everybody’s following them -- but I still think they’re so talented. I still think they’re going to make a run at it.”
For the sake of discussion, let’s say the Lakers don’t make a run at it. Let’s assume that Howard gets so sick of the prima-donna power struggle with Kobe that he walks this summer.
Can the Mavericks convince Howard that Dallas is the best destination for him? Of the teams that can create enough cap space to sign him, the Atlanta Hawks and Houston Rockets would seem to be the stiffest competition.
The Hawks and Rockets have a key ingredient the Mavs don’t: a franchise cornerstone in his prime who is locked into a long-term deal.
Atlanta’s 26-year-old double-double machine Al Horford could slide over to his natural power forward position and form arguably the NBA’s best 4-5 duo with Howard. Houston’s 23-year-old All-Star shooting guard James Harden and Howard might be the best one-two punch, period, outside of Miami and Oklahoma City.
The Hawks, Howard’s hometown team, also have fellow Atlanta native Lou Williams to provide scoring firepower off the bench for the next two seasons. Atlanta will have enough cap space to sign Howard and make other moves in free agency, perhaps including re-signing point guard Jeff Teague or all-around forward/Howard friend Josh Smith.
What do the Mavs have to sell other than the chance to play next to Dirk, a Hall of Famer in decline, and the opportunity to play for an elite coach in Rick Carlisle?
“Same thing we always sell -- that our focus is winning first, second and last, and that we can go out and get whatever assets on the court and off the court that we need to, hopefully in unique ways that other teams can’t match,” Mark Cuban said, speaking in general about a potential summer pitch to a superstar but not specifically Howard.
Of course, Cuban wasn’t part of the Mavs’ face-to-face pitch to Williams due to his commitment to film a reality show (“freakin’ Shark Tank,” Dirk calls it) on the West Coast. The Mavs’ billionaire boss told his TV producers months ago that he needed his schedule to be clear for the first couple weeks of July this summer.
Nowitzki, who would love nothing more than to pass the face-of-the-franchise baton to another star this summer, is also ready to play a supporting role in the recruiting process.
“If it gets to the point and Mark and Donnie want to fly somewhere, I’m in,” said Nowitzki, whose contract expires, along with Shawn Marion’s, after the 2013-14 season, making the Mavs potentially major players in that summer market as well. “If they need me, I’ll be here.”
The Mavs are really selling Cuban -- “Mark’s commitment to championships,” Donnie Nelson says -- as much as anything else in free agency. If given the chance, they’ll try to convince Howard that they can build a long-term contender around him, just like they did for a dozen years around Dirk.
“You look at what we’ve done over the years in terms of making the best use of our assets, whether they be players, cap space,” Nelson said. “We’ve been blessed and fortunate enough to make two runs to the Finals, and those teams were completely different in a lot of respects.
“You know when you’re playing for Mark Cuban that he’ll do whatever it takes to punch it into the end zone. I think those things are pretty evident. Players know that. They see. They’ve been around. They see what kind of run we’ve had over the past 13 years or whatever.
“This is a place that people want to come.”
This summer would be a perfect time to prove that to be true. It'd take a heck of a recruiting pitch to make it happen with Howard.