State of Dwight Howard sweepstakes
Or not. Whatever.
That feels like the Lakers' position on Dwight Howard, at least from this coast.
Yeah, they put up the billboards asking him to re-sign, which of course is the best option for the Lakers given their overall lack of financial flexibility. But even as good as he was on a sore, surgically repaired back last season, I don't get the sense the people in the locker room would be devastated if Howard left.
Kobe Bryant is too proud to beg, especially for a player he clashes with so obviously. Steve Nash would want a bounce-back season without worrying every possession whether Dwight is happy or not. Pau Gasol can claim his post in the center of that Lakers offense.
And we can all guess at this point Mike D'Antoni wants no part of Howard anymore, especially since there seems to be a "him or me" message coming from Howard's camp.
So how genuine are those pleas for Howard to stay put? Is firing D'Antoni, and embarrassing themselves further as a franchise, a prerequisite for re-signing Howard? And if he does go elsewhere, what's Plan B for L.A.?
I get the feeling a core of a motivated and unified Bryant, Nash and Gasol will still be plenty good, especially if they're healthy all year long.
What's the sense from the set of Dwightmare, Part III?
This is unlike anything ever seen in Lakerland. It could be the first time a star free agent leaves the Lakers. Even more remarkable, it could be met with a grand, "Whatever" from the team and its fan base.
Sure, any team could use a player who led the league in rebounds even amid a down year. And the Lakers' woeful defense desperately needs a version of Dwight Howard that bears even the slightest resemblance to his Defensive Player of the Year days. But would it be worth spending $118 million on someone who really doesn't want to be there, who is unwilling to embrace the tradition of the Lakers and make it his mission to uphold it? Do they want to entrust their team to someone as immature as Dwight Howard?
The Lakers needed to put up the "Stay" billboards, needed to publicly declare the desire to keep him and make a good-faith max contract offer to Howard. He's still the guy they made their big move for last summer, still better than anyone they could realistically bring in this summer. It wouldn't make sense to escort him to the door and open it for him. If he goes, it won't be because they didn't try. You won't be able to cite the Lakers for negligence.
That also doesn't mean the Lakers have to throw themselves in front of the door to keep him from leaving.
The Lakers' best lineup combination last season didn't have Howard on the court. It featured Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, and it outscored opponents by almost 20 points per 48 minutes, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. And Dwight Howard isn't the solution for some of the biggest problems the Lakers will face in the Western Conference: namely, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry. With Kobe injured, Howard had the chance to make his statement and provide a glimpse of what the future would be like with him as the team centerpiece. What we saw was Howard getting ejected after scoring seven points. The game before that, the Lakers suffered their worst home playoff blowout loss in franchise history. If he's OK with those being his final images in a Laker uniform, that's on him.
I've said before that the Lakers would be best served by not taking on new players and their salaries, allowing this roster and these contracts to play themselves out, then radically remaking the team in 2014, when the salaries of every current player except Steve Nash come off the books. They're not operating under the urgency that existed when they desperately wanted to win another championship before Jerry Buss moved on to The Great Luxury Box. They can still be a playoff team. For most teams that would be an accomplishment.
For the Lakers, it's purgatory. But if they can exercise a little restraint for one year, they'll be in position to renovate much faster than most teams, including the rival Celtics.
That's what's best for the Lakers. So what's best for Dwight Howard?
It's difficult to accept the apparent tone of resignation in Lakerland, but it seems to be the case. Sounds like the best selling point for staying would be pride first. As you mentioned, is that the way he wants to be remembered in L.A., even if it was just a season? But it doesn't feel like Dwight operates that way.
Second is the coaching pitch. Either he has to be promised that D'Antoni is flexible, or that the organization is willing to embarrass itself again and fire D'Antoni. My guess is if the players had the vote, they'd choose D'Antoni.
So where does that leave Howard?
The reported options are Dallas, Houston and Atlanta. Of those, I like Houston as a fit, followed by Atlanta, then Dallas.
Houston has the younger perimeter star in James Harden and a nice cast around him. The only supposed hang-up is Kevin McHale running similar sets to D'Antoni, which wouldn't attract Howard. But it's doubtful McHale is married to any one "system," and would be able to adjust to having one of the few great centers remaining.
Atlanta's also intriguing. Howard wants a more methodical pace, an inside-first approach and a chance to be the clear leader of a team? Atlanta offers him that. Plus, a combination of Al Horford, who's an instinctive player with good interior passing skills, and Howard would be just the kind of counter to Miami's small-ball that makes sense. Plus, the Hawks wouldn't be done adding after Howard.
The Dallas situation doesn't seem ideal. Not only will Howard be competing with Dirk Nowitzki for isos in the post, but how much longer does a 35-year-old Dirk have left?
Wherever Howard ends up, he'll have to have a significant bounce-back season to make the Lakers disaster a distant memory.
Houston seems like a good destination to me. All of the reasons in favor of the Rockets I wrote about last summer still apply, and now they have James Harden as well.
Dwight to Dallas would mean more for the Mavericks than it would for Howard. How many more years will Dirk Nowitzki be an elite player? And then what?
But if Mark Cuban can land Howard, it could be indicative of what the Mavericks can do next. Cuban could use a big splash. In the two seasons since the Mavericks won the championship, they haven't had anything work. He didn't keep the championship core together and the best defense they could muster was a first-round sweep at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder. It doesn't exactly send the message that if players come to Dallas and win they will be taken care of. Instead, the likes of Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea had to call the movers.
Then Cuban whiffed on Deron Williams, who sounded ready to sign with the Mavericks if only Cuban had shown up to the meeting. Cuban avoided long-term contracts to be in position to go after the big names this year and next. But what if nobody wants to buy what he's selling?
Another disadvantage for Cuban is that Nowitzki isn't American, which prevents him from playing on the United States national team. That's where the friendships that led to some of these superteams were formed. You don't hear stories of Dirk making team-up toasts at Carmelo Anthony's wedding, or hanging out in Vegas with half the league over the summer. Nowitzki is a great player; he isn't a great recruiter. Cuban has no edge. He'll need to really sell that lack of state tax in Texas.
The more I let it sink in, the more I'm convincing myself Atlanta is a great fit for Howard.
They're essentially a clean slate. Not only do they have enough salary cap space to sign Howard and perhaps make a run at an Andre Iguodala, a point-forward type who can take some of the playmaking pressure off scoring-minded point guards like Lou Williams and Jeff Teague.
But perhaps equally as important, the Hawks are a blank slate in terms of history.
There aren't high expectations there. This isn't championship-or-bust territory, which, it would appear, is to Howard's liking.
The Rockets, Mavs and Lakers have all won championships in the past 20 years, and they badly want to get back there.
The Hawks? They'll be thrilled to be on national television every once in a while and reach the Eastern Conference finals.
It's also his hometown, where he'll be embraced tightly regardless of his history as a malcontent. And there will be no comparisons to retired greats Howard has to live up to.
Whether it's Houston or Atlanta, this much seems inevitable: A few well-placed billboards won't be enough to bring him back to L.A.
The extra millions, it seems, is the only strong selling point the Lakers have. But if this were a college recruitment, I'd place the Lakers well behind in this race.
I see Atlanta as being similar to Dallas: They've cleared the cap room, but can they close the deal with anyone?
General managers can do all the payroll maneuvering they want, but if they can't land the big-name free agents, then the only people you're really impressing are in the accounting department. So far Danny Ferry has received his biggest kudos for managing to move Joe Johnson's contract. But keep in mind Johnson is also the most noteworthy free agent the Hawks have signed. Can they do better? And would Dwight Howard actually turn out to be better? Howard has won more playoff series (6-3), but Howard also hasn't won a series since 2010. Johnson last advanced in 2011.
Does Howard want to be in the same conference as LeBron during LeBron's prime? Yes, Howard beat LeBron in 2009. But that wasn't the current, fully optimized version of LeBron that's running the league now. It's easy to envision Miami LeBron -- or even Cleveland Part II LeBron -- sending Howard home early on an annual basis.
As with Dallas, you have to ask what's in it for Howard. He'd bring more to them than they would to him. His signing would make the Hawks seem like a destination team. Or at least a team that seriously belongs in the conversation.
The problem for Ferry, like most general managers, is that simply winning games often isn't enough to attract more winning players. Do we see free agents taking discounts to go to Oklahoma City with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook? Will we see an accomplished player sign for the mid-level in Memphis the way Ray Allen did in Miami?
Players such as Andre Iguodala and Monta Ellis don't change the equation into a championship formula on their own, but add them to the right lineup and they can make a one-round difference (which is all I think Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce will end up doing in Brooklyn).
But I'm sure everyone will be transfixed by Dwight Howard when the market bell sounds on July 1. As much as the league has gone away from a center-oriented style, and as much as Howard's stock has dropped over the past couple of years, quality big men are like ex-presidents: They still command attention, even when they're no longer commander in chief.