While the odds still favor Dwight Howard ending up with the Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets or Dallas Mavericks, there's actually a good argument to be made for the league's most discussed free agent returning home to join the Atlanta Hawks.
Any analysis of why a Georgia homecoming is a viable option has to start with the reasons why Howard wouldn't re-sign with the Lakers. Don't worry, there are plenty of those.
Obviously, Howard's first season in L.A. didn't go as planned. His physical struggles, caused by the first major surgery of his career, held him back all season. Plus, the Lakers basically fell apart around him—in every conceivable way. Injuries, coaching changes and a general lack of a defined scheme prevented L.A. from ever stringing together a sustainable stretch of solid play.
The unrest didn't end there, either.
According to Dave McMenamin of ESPN, Howard voiced his frustration with coach Mike D'Antoni during a postseason meeting with GM Mitch Kupchak:
According to sources with knowledge of the situation, part of the discussion between Howard and Kupchak centered around Howard's frustration with D'Antoni—particularly how the center felt marginalized as the coach looked to Bryant and Steve Nash for leadership and suggestions and discounted Howard's voice.
Look, if you've been following the NBA at all over the past few months, none of the turmoil in Los Angeles is really news. Howard's attitude and the team's poor play combined to create a toxic situation. The bigger issue is that among Purple and Gold fans, Howard simply isn't embraced as a "true Laker."
He's already botched his first impression, and it may not be possible for him to correct the damage if he re-ups with the team.
All that aside, the Lakers' roster is also a mess. Crippled by the salary cap and saddled with a roster full of the aged, infirm and ineffective, the prospects of the Lakers getting appreciably better in the future aren't very good.
Unless the entire roster hops a plane to Germany to get a double dose of whatever strange knee treatment allowed Bryant to play like a 25-year-old last year.
Obviously, the Lakers can pay Howard the most money ($118 million) and offer him the longest deal (five years). In addition, Los Angeles affords him the attention and marketing opportunities he seems to crave. Those are huge incentives.
But it's shortsighted to ignore the mountain of negatives that D12 would have to deal with if he returns to the Lakers.
The Rockets and Mavericks provide a couple of decent alternatives for Howard. I won't belabor them here, but suffice it to say that the Mavs have proved to be a class organization with an owner who thinks big, and the Rockets have a superstar in James Harden, as well as the international marketing dollars that could intrigue Howard (thank you, Jeremy Lin's rabid fanbase).
So, D12 has a couple of good options if he doesn't want to go through the spin cycle of another L.A. season.
But what about the Hawks?
Howard is from Atlanta, and if he's looking for a fresh start with extremely low expectations, he could do a lot worse than the Hawks. For what it's worth, GM Danny Ferry is very much interested in bringing Howard in to serve as a cornerstone on the team he's building almost from scratch.
The Hawks have one of the best salary cap situations of any team in the league. They've also got Al Horford inked to a very team-friendly deal and are otherwise only committed to Lou Williams and John Jenkins next year. If Atlanta declines the various options it has on its current restricted free agents, it could afford to sign both Howard and another big-name player to lucrative deals.
Which is where things get interesting.
Chris Paul, the other marquee unrestricted free agent on the market, is also a major target for the Hawks. According to Mark Heisler of Lakers Nation, if Paul chooses not to re-sign with the Los Angeles Clippers, the Hawks could have a chance to make a major splash:
If Paul leaves, it could could pose a problem for the Lakers, who had enough already, if he and Dwight Howard decide to create a new option, joining up in Atlanta. Howard and Paul are pals. The Hawks can open up two maximum slots. They mused about Atlanta (D12’s from there, CP3 from North Carolina) years ago, before fate led them in other directions.
And according to ESPN's Bradford Doolittle (subscription required), if the Hawks trimmed all of the fat from their roster, they'd have a good chunk of money to offer Paul (who's from nearby North Carolina) and Howard. Of course, the pair would have to make a minor financial sacrifice a la the Big Three in Miami:
If the cap comes in at, say, $60 million, then that would be $34 million for Howard and Paul to split. Not the max, but this scenario only works if the pair decides to follow in the path of Miami's LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Paul really is the trump card here. If he ends up in Atlanta first, or can somehow convince Howard to join him in a dual signing, the Hawks could suddenly morph into an Eastern Conference powerhouse.
Ultimately, it's awfully tough to imagine Howard giving up the extra money and attention the Lakers can offer him. But if he's at all concerned about finding the best overall situation for the next few years of his career, he'd be crazy not to consider teaming up with Paul on the Hawks.
This saga is far from over, but amid the constant talk about the Lakers, Mavs and Rockets, keep the Hawks in mind as a dark-horse destination that actually makes a whole lot of sense.