Dwight Howard's disastrous first season in Los Angeles—generously deemed "the Dwightmare," but actually much more toxic than a dream—screeched to a halt in the playoffs' first round. And now, even with the future's of Kobe Bryant's Achilles and Pau Gasol's employment hanging in the balance, only one story will dominate the back pages in Hollywood this summer:
Is Howard willing to return for season two?
The Lakers' divisive big man is a free agent once again this summer; free to sign with any team he chooses. Howard has endured alleged rifts with his coach and shied from the Tinseltown spotlight since arriving, and thus appears eager to explore those options diligently.
Grantland overlord Bill Simmons was sardonic about Howard's potential return to Los Angeles, issuing 10 realities about his situation that, ultimately, made another season with the Lakers seem like a farce. And even if the rest of the world doesn't see through Simmons' cynical, often contentious lens, it's hard not to agree with much of what he had to say.
Four major players have emerged as suitors for Howard, each making a unique play to lure him out of Los Angeles. Here's the latest scoop surrounding each of those teams' pursuit:
Golden State Warriors/Atlanta Hawks
The two presumptive dark horses in Dwight Howard's courtship received good then bad news the past couple of days, a veritable roller coaster ride of hope and bleakness.
First came Thursday's report, via the Long Beach Press-Telegram, that Golden State and Atlanta were securely on Howard's "short list" of destinations:
A source familiar with Howard's thinking says he plans to test free agency and has considered the Lakers, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta and Golden State.
But subsequent news has regressed the Hawks' and Warriors' positions. First, Warriors beat writer Marcus Thompson laid out a number of compelling obstacles standing between Howard and Golden State, and Saturday, ESPN's Ric Bucher laid out equally persuasive arguments against Howard joining either side:
On Golden State:
Asked specifically about the Warriors being one of the teams Howard would be willing to join...[my] source said the only connection between the player and team was when the Warriors expressed interest in Howard after he made it clear he wanted out of Orlando a year ago.
And on Atlanta:
Despite interest from his home-town team, the Hawks, sources have repeatedly said Howard, like many players, are wary of the demands and distractions of playing where they grew up.
Neither team's attempt to woo Howard is complete, and reports like these are oftentimes fickle at best. Whether or not they remain at the bottom of Howard's prospective quintet remains to be seen.
All we can say for sure is that Howard joining either club, at least of this current moment, would be a major, not minor, upset.
Mark Cuban and Co.'s infatuation with Howard is hardly a secret at this point. Tyson Chandler, who has since been named the league's Defensive Player of the Year, was allowed to walk on the heels of his best season, a season where he helped secure a championship, all as a means of creating cap space for a potential run at Howard a couple of summers ago.
Now, with Howard's name conveniently back on the market, Dallas appears ready to shed some cap space again. Per ESPN's Chad Ford:
Ford's report comes on the heels of a similar assertion from ESPN's Marc Stein, a former Mavericks beat writer, who gave the team a "10 percent chance" of luring Howard to Dallas:
...Cuban has clearly been preparing for this and working for this, and the Mavs must think they have a chance given the way they operated the team this year and had everybody on 1-year deals and didn’t take out any money as the season went on...
Cuban has struck out, rather uncharacteristically, on his last few free agent endeavors—not just in pursuit of Howard, but also in his courtship of point guard Deron Williams. He was (begrudgingly) content to let his team of one-year contracts fade to the background this season, but two years out of the spotlight is more than Cubes can bare.
He'll try to make Howard an offer he can't refuse.
The prohibitive favorite outside of L.A., Houston, like in-state rival Dallas, has always had a soft spot for Dwight Howard's services. The man known as Dork Elvis, general manager Daryl Morey, made a shrewd move in acquiring Omer Asik (for $8.38 mil per year!) this summer, but his eyes might still be set on a higher, sexier acquisition in the middle.
According to reports, the MIT man and his Houston Rockets certainly have Howard's attention. Per USA Today:
...According to a person with knowledge of his situation... [Howard is] torn between the idea of Laker life or the notion of joining a Houston Rockets club that looks so much more appealing with James Harden & Co. in tow.
That Howard would consider straight-up signing in Houston—enough that he's allegedly "torn"—is obviously a welcome sign. Even if the Lakers choose to pursue a sign-and-trade (receiving a package of, say, Asik and Chandler Parsons is hardly a pittance in return), it's nice to know that Howard would giddily accept his new, twangy hometown.
In the afore-referenced Grantland article, Bill Simmons called Houston the one franchise that makes sense for Howard—Lakers included—laying out a number of reasons why the city would benefit him so greatly compared to L.A.:
We have overwhelming evidence that Howard can't handle carrying a big-market franchise, that he's better off in a more laid-back situation — ideally as the running mate for someone who could shoulder the superstar burdens for him. That's why the Rockets make so much sense. That's an underrated destination city for NBA players: no state income tax, great barbecue, fun nightlife, low cost of living, a diverse population, and best of all (for Dwight, anyway), decidedly less pressure. Football rules the roost in Texas. The Houston media wouldn't pick Dwight apart. Rockets fans would be happy to have him.
If Howard can return, even partially, to his 2011 form, the combination of him and James Harden would immediately make Houston a top contender out West. And the thought of that might be too much for Daryl Morey to pass up—even if it costs him an already promising young core.