Dallas Mavericks: Plan D12

ESPNDallas.com will compare the Mavericks, Lakers and Rockets in five facets -- other than money -- that could play a role in Dwight Howard's free agency decision in a one-per-day series: owners/front office, coaches, co-stars, supporting casts and franchise tradition. We focused on Chris Paul last week.

The list of teams that can match the Lakers’ tradition is awfully short.

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Mark Cuban joins ESPN Dallas GameDay to discuss the Mavericks' plans, the free-agent market and what possibilities there are for Dallas.

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In fact, it features just one team, and the Celtics aren’t going to be involved in this summer’s Dwight Howard derby. The Mavs and Rockets certainly have respectable traditions, but they can’t come close to comparing with a franchise that has 16 NBA championships.

Of course, all-time great big men are a big part of the Lakers’ championship tradition. George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal set a sky-high standard for centers who wear purple and gold. That might not necessarily help the Lakers’ cause in trying to keep Howard.

There’s a ton of pressure that comes along with following that line of legends in the nation’s second largest media market. Shaq’s disdain for Dwight, which manifests itself in many nationally televised verbal jabs, doesn’t help matters. There’s a theory that Howard would prefer to create a different path instead of simply following Shaq’s Orlando-to-Los Angeles footsteps.

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Galloway & Company discuss Chris Paul's situation with the Clippers. Paul is unhappy being linked to the firing of his former coach. Could he join the Mavericks?

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And what if Howard doesn’t win a title with the Lakers? That’s a distinct possibility with his fellow future Hall of Famers on the roster closer to the rocking chair than the prime of their careers. He’d be perceived as perhaps the biggest letdown in Lakers history, the lone perennial All-Star big man incapable of lifting his team to the top of the league.

How heavily will that weigh on the mind of a man who has made it clear he’s searching for happiness this summer?

If Howard goes to Houston, he’ll be constantly compared to Hakeem Olajuwon, a Hall of Famer and two-time Finals MVP.

To a lesser degree, there will also be comparisons to Moses Malone and Yao Ming. However, as dominant as Malone was during his Houston days, he never won a ring with the Rockets and isn’t a Houston legend. Ming only got out of the first round once during his injury-abbreviated career.

The Rockets have tradition, but it’s been years since Houston has been considered a legitimate contender. Over the last decade and a half, the Rockets have been a distant third among NBA franchises in this state. The scrutiny wouldn’t be anywhere close to as suffocating as it is in L.A.

All due respect to James Donaldson and Tyson Chandler, but Howard would be the best big man in Mavs history as soon as he tied his shoes. There could still be some unflattering comparisons for Howard when it comes to Chandler’s excellent intangibles, but there’s no question that Howard is the superior center.

While only one championship banner hangs on the Mavs’ side of the American Airlines Center, this franchise has established an impressive winning tradition during Mark Cuban’s ownership tenure. (Or during Dirk Nowitzki’s career, if you want to assign credit to the man who did more heavy lifting.)

The Mavs and Rockets can’t stack up to the Lakers’ tremendous tradition, but that might be a good thing in the Dwight sweepstakes this summer.

EDGE: That all depends on Dwight’s mindset … which infamously can change with the wind.
ESPNDallas.com will compare the Mavericks, Lakers and Rockets in five facets -- other than money -- that could play a role in Dwight Howard's free agency decision in a one-per-day series: owners/front office, coaches, co-stars, supporting casts and franchise tradition. We focused on Chris Paul last week.

The Lakers and Mavericks are in similar situations when it comes to their supporting casts: They have to sell hope.

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Marc Stein joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to discuss the officiating in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers' chances at beating Miami, the conspiracy theories surrounding the NBA and Mark Cuban's new two-year plan.

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They can both make a pitch about being competitive next season with a veteran core surrounding Dwight Howard, although that didn’t work in Los Angeles last season and the Mavs would need to do some relatively significant salary-cap tinkering to keep both Shawn Marion and Vince Carter while creating room to give Howard a max contract.

What about the future?

Like the Mavs, a lot of money comes off the Lakers’ books next summer. Steve Nash, whose physical breakdown finally happened almost a decade after leaving Dallas, is the lone Laker under contract for the 2014-15 season. The Mavs only have option years for last season’s rookies on their 2014-15 ledger.

You can make a strong case that L.A. would be a more attractive destination for free agents than Dallas, but there’s one major wild card. Would Kobe Bryant, the league’s highest-paid player, be willing to take the major pay cut to give the Lakers the flexibility required to make significant additions to a Dwight/Kobe core? Dirk Nowitzki’s willingness to slash his salary will be part of the Mavs’ pitch.

The Rockets have the advantage of already having a potential long-term supporting cast in place. They might have to slice into that cast a bit to make room for Howard, but they have young building blocks such as Chandler Parsons, Donatas Motiejunas and Patrick Beverley under contract at bargain rates for at least two more seasons.

Parsons, the second-round steal who averaged 15.5 points in his second season, could be a phenomenal complementary piece for Howard and James Harden for years to come. The multi-skilled 6-foot-9 small forward’s perimeter shooting makes him a perfect fit for the Rockets’ system and accentuates the offensive strengths of the potential Houston co-stars.

A commitment from Houston ownership to keep Parsons when his contract expires after the 2014-15 season could go a long way.

EDGE: Rockets
ESPNDallas.com will compare the Mavericks, Lakers and Rockets in five facets -- other than money -- that could play a role in Dwight Howard's free agency decision in a one-per-day series: owners/front office, coaches, co-stars, supporting casts and franchise tradition. We focused on Chris Paul last week.

Mike D’Antoni’s stubborn refusal to tweak his beloved system to feature Dwight Howard is one of the primary reasons the All-Star big man will be tempted to leave Los Angeles.

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Marc Stein joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to discuss the officiating in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers' chances at beating Miami, the conspiracy theories surrounding the NBA and Mark Cuban's new two-year plan.

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That coach/player relationship is a bad situation that could get even worse. The Lakers lost the two assistants who were Howard’s closest confidants when D’Antoni opted not to retain Chuck Person and the Bobcats hired Steve Clifford as their head coach.

Would the Lakers allow Howard to essentially fire a head coach who was hired after Mike Brown’s dismissal early last season? Would Howard even want to deal with the PR fallout from such a decision after his highly publicized divorce with Stan Van Gundy in Orlando?

If coaching is a major factor in Dwight’s decision, it doesn’t seem very likely that he’d stay in L.A.

Playing for Kevin McHale in Houston could certainly be intriguing. After all, if Howard is determined to truly maximize his offensive potential, he could surely learn a few tricks from one of the craftiest low-post scorers in NBA history.

McHale, however, doesn’t have many skins on the wall as a head coach. McHale has a 118-124 record and has yet to win a playoff series, credentials that pale compared to a certain former Celtics teammate who also currently works in Texas.

Rick Carlisle, with his 520-366 record and 2011 championship ring, is by far the most accomplished among these three coaches.

It shouldn’t be hard for Carlisle to convince Howard that the Mavs would come up with creative ways to tap into his talent. He could start by showing Howard tape of some of the sets Carlisle’s Pacers used to get Jermaine O'Neal deep-post touches in his prime.

One might think the hard-driving Carlisle would clash with the laidback Howard. But give the Virginia psychology major credit for knowing when to push buttons and having learned over the years the importance of maintaining a strong relationship with his superstars.

That’s a lesson D’Antoni ignored last season, perhaps opening the door for Howard to head to Houston or Dallas.

EDGE: Mavs
ESPNDallas.com will compare the Mavericks, Lakers and Rockets in five facets -- other than money -- that could play a role in Dwight Howard's free agency decision in a one-per-day series: owners/front office, coaches, co-stars, supporting casts and franchise tradition. We focused on Chris Paul last week.

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Mark Cuban joins ESPN Dallas GameDay to discuss the Mavericks' plans, the free-agent market and what possibilities there are for Dallas.

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Dwight Howard can choose between surefire Hall of Famers who are in their golden years or pair with a young player who has that type of potential.

Does he want to deal with Kobe Bryant’s ego and demanding personality again? Does Kobe’s torn Achilles tendon factor into the decision? Does Howard believe Dirk Nowitzki still has a few elite years left in his legs? Does he consider James Harden a long-term fit as his co-star?

We’re talking about the most infamously indecisive man in the NBA here, so the answers to those questions could change a dozen or so times before free agency opens July 1. Let’s see if we can help Howard by laying out the pros and cons of each potential co-star.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant and Dwight Howard
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertYear 1 of the Kobe Bryant-Dwight Howard experiment didn't exactly go smoothly.
Bryant: As heartwarming as Howard’s post-surgery visit to Kobe’s home might have been, this relationship was rocky at best throughout the season. That’s kind of the way Kobe rolls with premier centers.

As was the case with Shaquille O'Neal, part of the issue is the polar-opposite personalities. Bryant has earned a reputation as one of the most ruthless competitors in sports. Howard often acts like a big, goofy kid.

There’s also the alpha male thing. Bryant won his power struggle with Shaq, and he wasn’t about to subjugate his ego upon Howard’s arrival in Los Angeles. Make no mistake: As long as Kobe is wearing purple and gold, the Lakers will be his team.

And then there’s the on-court chemistry, or lack thereof. Bryant will dominate the ball, plain and simple. The offense isn’t going to run through Howard, especially not with Mike D’Antoni on the bench. Whether Howard wants to admit it or not, that negatively affects his energy, reducing the easy buckets he ought to get in the flow of the game and making him a less effective defender.

Kobe’s comeback from the torn Achilles suffered late in the season is a huge wild card. Can Bryant, who turns 35 this summer, ever get back to being a dominant player? Will the injury force him to change his style?

Another thing nobody knows at this point: How much longer will Bryant play?

[+] EnlargeDirk Nowitzki
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsDirk Nowitzki might be the best fit for Dwight Howard in terms personality and style of play.
Nowitzki: Like Bryant, Nowitzki’s contract expires next summer, but he’s committed to playing at least two or three more seasons for the Mavs. The fact that Dirk’s deal only has a year left makes him a more attractive potential teammate, because he’s promised to take a major pay cut to make room for more talent.

As far as personality and style of play, Howard couldn’t ask for a better fit as a co-star than Nowitzki.

Dirk is more than willing to pass the baton of being the Mavs’ centerpiece to another future Hall of Famer. He’d love to be the second-best player on his team for the first time since the developmental stage of his career. Yet Dirk could still serve as the unofficial locker room spokesman, easing the burden on Howard’s sensitive shoulders.

As long as Nowitzki’s legs are able, the Mavs will always look for opportunities to get him open midrange looks and create mismatches for him. But Nowitzki would be ecstatic to spend much of his time serving as a floor-spacing stretch 4 if the Mavs are able to acquire a low-post weapon. Think of how effective Rashard Lewis and Ryan Anderson were in that role during their days playing with Howard in Orlando. How do you think the sweetest-shooting 7-footer in NBA history would fare with a bunch of open 3s?

The concern with Nowitzki, of course, is his age. He’s about to turn 35 and his numbers dipped the last two seasons, in large part due to knee problems.

How much greatness is left in the big German? The Mavs will point to 37-year-old Tim Duncan as proof that, with good medical care and modern technology, the all-time greats can bounce back from nuisance knee problems and be dominant forces.

[+] EnlargeJames Harden
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiJames Harden reportedly has already been making recruiting pitches to Dwight Howard over the phone.
Harden: At the tender age of 23, Harden made the leap to elite last season, seizing the opportunity that came with his “The Man” responsibilities after being traded to the Rockets.

With Bryant recovering from a serious injury, Harden should indisputably be considered the game’s premier shooting guard at this point, having averaged 25.9 points, 5.8 assists and 4.9 rebounds for a playoff team. And he’s still a few years away from his prime.

Harden has also proven he can sacrifice his ego (but not money) to co-exist with superstars. He thrived as the Thunder’s sixth man before Oklahoma City’s front office made a financial-based decision to deal him just before last season began.

There’s no doubt that Harden would welcome Howard to Houston. In fact, Harden has reportedly been making recruiting pitches to Howard over the phone for weeks now.

What’s not to like about Harden for Howard?

Well, the Mavs might mention that Harden’s pound-the-dribble-and-shoot-a-lot playing style is awfully similar to Bryant. They had the top two usage rates and most field goals attempted among shooting guards who played at least 50 games last season. Could that perhaps plant seeds of doubt in Howard’s fickle mind about pairing with "The Beard"?

EDGE: Rockets
ESPNDallas.com will compare the Mavericks, Lakers and Rockets in five facets -- other than money -- that could play a role in Dwight Howard's free agency decision in a one-per-day series: owners/front office, coaches, co-stars, supporting casts and franchise tradition. We focused on Chris Paul last week.

A strong argument can be made that glitzy Jerry Buss, who oversaw 10 of the Lakers’ titles, was the greatest owner in NBA history.

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Mark Cuban joins ESPN Dallas GameDay to discuss the Mavericks' plans, the free-agent market and what possibilities there are for Dallas.

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It remains to be seen how well Buss’ adult children can fill his shoes after his death in February.

Six Buss siblings share the family’s majority stake in the Lakers, but there are two power brokers. Jim Buss runs the basketball operations; Jeanie Buss is in charge of the business side.

The brother and sister certainly didn’t see eye to eye when the Lakers had to hire a coach following Mike Brown’s firing five games into the season. Jeanie Buss was reportedly stunned that Phil Jackson, the 11-time champion coach who happens to be her fiance, wasn’t hired after he expressed a strong interest in returning to the Lakers bench. Jim Buss opted for Mike D’Antoni, a decision that seemed worse with every “We want Phil!” chant at the Staples Center throughout the Lakers’ disappointing season.

The Lakers’ ownership situation, a strength for so many years, now has at least some sense of uncertainty, although it’s a safe bet that they continue spending as big as they see fit, especially with massive TV money coming. Mark Cuban is a sure thing, at least when it comes to being an owner with an intense dedication to basketball and winning.

General manager Mitch Kupchak remains in the role he has filled for more than a decade after being groomed by the legendary Jerry West. He’s one of the few GMs in the league who can match the Mavs’ brain trust when it comes to creativity.

The deal that brought Pau Gasol to L.A. – and essentially made the Lakers’ last two titles possible – resulted in so many grumbles around the league that it probably played a role in the infamous “basketball reasons” veto of the Chris Paul-to-the-Lakers trade.

And, while the Steve Nash deal hasn’t paid dividends for the Lakers so far, it was pretty impressive for Kupchak to create it essentially out of thin air. The Lakers gave up two first-round picks, two second-rounders and the trade exception from the deal that shipped the basketball corpse of Lamar Odom to Dallas. Oh, and Kupchak also orchestrated the four-team deal to acquire Howard.

After July, Kupchak was the frontrunner for Executive of the Year. The Lakers’ mediocre season – maybe the most disappointing in NBA history, given the hype – messed that up, but the man has quite a track record as a GM.

Of course, the Cuban/Donnie Nelson combo has pulled off some pretty big blockbusters, too. Just not under this collective bargaining agreement.

In hindsight, a strong argument can be made that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey did the best job remodeling his team between the last two seasons.

Morey, an MIT-educated stats geek given leeway to do his job by relatively anonymous two-time championship owner Leslie Alexander, did a phenomenal job collecting assets and pouncing when James Harden became available.

Morey doesn’t have the skins on the wall that the Lakers’ and Mavs’ decision-makers do, but there’s no doubt he’s one of the brightest up-and-coming basketball minds.

EDGE: Mavs. There’s no threat of front office tug-of-wars in Dallas, and they’ve proven they can sustain success.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Dirk Nowitzki
PTS AST STL MIN
21.7 2.7 0.9 32.9
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsD. Nowitzki 6.2
AssistsM. Ellis 5.7
StealsM. Ellis 1.7
BlocksB. Wright 0.9