- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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NEW YORK -- As franchise players go, Dwight Howard looks the part like no other star in his sport. He has the requisite size, skill and smile, and the kind of video game muscles even LeBron James wishes he had.
Howard's shoulders appear superhuman enough to carry Barclays Center from Atlantic Avenue to the Manhattan Bridge, and, yes, that's why the men running the Brooklyn Nets chased after him last summer like kids in a parking lot desperate for his autograph.
"But that's changed," said one NBA official familiar with the thinking of Nets management. "It's not as cut and dried as it was last year, when the feeling was go ahead and pretty much gut the team for Dwight, give up a bunch of draft picks and players and take back bad contracts. That feeling isn't there anymore."
For two good reasons: Howard isn't making any more friends or free throws with the Los Angeles Lakers than he did with the Orlando Magic; and Brook Lopez is developing into a safer and better option for an ever-evolving organization that needs stability like never before.
The building is new. The borough is new. The logo, the coach, the two-guard and the winning record are new, too.
But Tuesday, the day quirky NBA rules officially made Lopez trade eligible (he met that truth with less enthusiasm than the college teams that are notified they are bowl eligible), this much wasn't new:
Howard's affection for Brooklyn, or his concept of Brooklyn, and his potential availability between now and the Feb. 21 trade deadline.
Howard was back to his old dominant self against Milwaukee on Tuesday night, finishing with a monster line of 31 points, 16 boards and four blocks. Only this isn't the Howard the Lakers are used to seeing, or the Howard they're confident they'll see across the balance of the season.
So if the Lakers do call in the coming weeks for fear of losing Howard to free agency this summer, the Nets should tell them thanks, but no thanks. They should stick with the center who scored 22 points, grabbed nine rebounds and made 10 of 10 free throws in 29 minutes against Toronto on Tuesday night, when Brooklyn won for the ninth time in 10 games under P.J. Carlesimo and ended up a mere 1½ games behind the Knicks in the division and two behind Miami in the conference.
There's no need to take the Brook out of Brooklyn, not when Lopez is three years younger than Howard, much less radioactive in and around the locker room and much more reliable on the offensive end in the fourth quarter, when Superman is fed a steady diet of kryptonite on the foul line.
Howard's inability to make free throws often reduces him to an endgame liability, making him a poor fit for Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, a pair of kinda-sorta go-to guys who don't have the game or makeup to be Game 6 or 7 closers in, say, the Eastern Conference finals, the landing place that meets Mikhail Prokhorov's definition of a successful year.
The Nets owner expects a championship much sooner than later, and when he lunched with Carlesimo in the wake of Avery Johnson's firing, Prokhorov asked the interim coach to evaluate each member of the roster in a singular context: whether that player can help him win a ring.
Howard didn't win a ring in his eight seasons in Orlando, and he's not going to win a ring in his one-and-maybe-done season in L.A. In fact, the Lakers might not even make the playoffs, a scenario that could grow more and more realistic after they play 10 of 13 games on the road in an upcoming stretch, including a stop in Brooklyn.
Whether they finish in or out of the tournament, the Lakers will want to retain Howard in the worst way. They didn't trade away Andrew Bynum for one disjointed season and a few parting gifts in July. They'll want to build around Howard as soon as it's clear they can no longer build around Kobe Bryant.
But the Lakers positively cannot lose him for nothing, not when their commitment of $78 million and change to other players next season eliminates their chance of replacing the center under the salary cap. So if Howard won't pledge his everlasting love, and if the Lakers decide they can't bank on securing a summertime signature from a star who changes his mind every hour on the hour, they might have no choice but to put him on the market.
"If that happens," the NBA official said, "there will be a lot of healthy debate inside the organization."
Brooklyn's organization. Ever since they walked away from talks with Orlando, Nets people have been no more willing to publicly say the words Dwight Howard than Knicks people have been to publicly say the words Jeremy Lin. The Nets have wanted to move on with their lives, to enjoy their escape from New Jersey and their early climb up the ladder of an Eastern Conference that is supermodel thin.
Yet privately, they still monitor Howard's play and the reports that he's getting along with Bryant like he got along with Stan Van Gundy. It didn't take long for Howard to air his true feelings about Kobe, his whining wrapped inside his stated admiration for the lovefest going on next door with the Clippers.
Whatever. Howard remains the league's best rebounder, and one of its few game-changing forces on the defensive side of the ball. His athletic grace stands in direct contrast to the awkward ground game played by Lopez, who doesn't have a physique built for a superhero's cape or a style suited for "SportsCenter" highlights.
But the 24-year-old Lopez has only 282 games' worth of mileage on his legs, while the 27-year-old Howard, including playoffs, has more than 700 games' worth of mileage on his. Lopez is an improving defender, rebounder and shot-blocker, and he's a more versatile offensive player than Howard, whose back injury/surgery is probably a riskier long-term proposition than Lopez's foot injury/surgery.
Lopez isn't Steve Nash at the foul line, but his perfect 10 Tuesday reminded everyone he'll never be a Howard in the final minutes of a tense game, with teammates all but afraid to throw him the ball.
"Personally," Lopez said after the Nets improved their record to 23-15, "I haven't really experienced something like this in the league yet. It's new to me, but I love this feeling."
The Nets have something here under Carlesimo, and Prokhorov and general manager Billy King should see it through and see how far Lopez and Williams and Johnson can advance in the playoffs. The Nets are long shots to get out of the East, of course, but so was the Jersey team Jason Kidd took to the first of two consecutive Finals in 2002, right after a 26-56 season.
Can this team legitimately compete for a championship? "No question," Lopez said as he headed for the Barclays Center exit. "Obviously, that's the goal. I think it should be every team's goal. ... We're improving night in and night out, growing as a team."
Growing with the center who signed a four-year deal for $60.8 million only after the Nets failed to reel in a bigger fish.
"This is where I wanted to be," Lopez said. "I wanted to be part of this transition because I knew big things were going to happen here."
The center was saying this at the end of Jan. 15, the day the re-signed free agent became trade eligible again. "I didn't even know there was a day like that," Lopez said, "or that today was the day."
The day passed without incident, and the rest of the season should, too, as this franchise has endured enough big, volatile changes. If the Lakers do panic between now and Feb. 21, the Nets should keep their cool and their center, too.
If L.A. calls for a Dwight Howard trade, the Nets shouldn't even entertain it.