Dwight Howard isn’t going to five different teams—despite constant reports that say otherwise.
Only one NBA franchise will earn the right to pay max dollars to the league’s best center, and everyone else will move on to their backup plan.
When Howard ultimately makes his decision, what will be the next move for the teams that didn’t land him?
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers are hoping to re-sign the big man that was too often the scapegoat in last season’s failed efforts of contending for a title. Kobe Bryant was critical of the center, and on-court bickering between Howard and teammates was often captured live.
Still, the Lakers can offer him more money than any other team—$30 million more to be exact—and Los Angeles provides more juice than the other options. Howard is an on-camera personality who wants to be liked, and success in purple and gold brings with it instant love.
Howard certainly witnessed the other side of things, though.
He took the blame for the unsuccessful season, criticized for his demeanor and competitiveness even though he was simply what he’s always been. He was attacked for not performing, despite playing through a serious back injury through the early portion of the season.
Howard still averaged 17.1 points on 57.8 percent shooting, 12.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. He may not have been the back-to-the-basket offensive juggernaut that Lakers fans hoped he would be, but that's never been who he is. He is athletic around the rim and remains one of the league's best rim protectors.
Still, it wasn’t enough to succeed last season. Now though, Howard is truly the Lakers' only shot this offseason at not falling completely into oblivion during next season’s transition year.
They’ve made their plea.
If the Lakers have Howard, the team could actually have enough talent to contend if it stays healthy and Bryant returns to form.
Without Howard, the Lakers lose the season in a wait for salary cap room next summer. Los Angeles will have only the $9.7 million owed to Steve Nash in 2014-15 on the books.
There is no backup plan other than that to save the 2013-14 season.
The Lakers can opt to use the amnesty provision on Metta World Peace’s $7.27 million contract to avoid steep luxury tax penalties. Pau Gasol moves back to the center position and Earl Clark is re-signed to become the team's new power forward. The team will have to find cheap contracts to fill out the roster and avoid building on the luxury tax.
None of Howard’s other suitors has as much riding on the center's decision as the Lakers do.
The Rockets seem to have jumped into the lead in the pursuit of Howard with the ability to offer a younger, more competitive roster than Los Angeles. A move to Houston also means no income tax, which helps make up for some of the lost dollars in leaving the Lakers.
The extra money, as well as playing alongside James Harden and the emerging Chandler Parsons, is a nice sell.
But if Houston has its heart broken by Howard, what will it do?
The first option is to stick to the roster of talented young players and grow through development. This would mean removing Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin from the trade block, where Ken Berger of CBS Sports reported they were.
However, since the team already has fed its desire to bring in a top-tier talent, the other option is to chase the next-best free agent, Josh Smith.
Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports reports:
The Houston Rockets told Atlanta Hawks free-agent forward Josh Smith during their meeting Monday in Los Angeles that they will make him a contract offer if they don’t sign Los Angeles Lakers free-agent center Dwight Howard, a league source told Yahoo! Sports.
The Hawks were originally hoping to build a superteam with enough cap space to sign both Howard and superstar Chris Paul. That would have worked nicely with Al Horford at center.
The thought of moving Horford to power forward to play alongside Howard became a possibility, and Atlanta became a dark horse in the chase. Atlanta would still have money to spend and can pitch to Howard that it’d surround him with talent specifically to suit him.
If it doesn’t work out, Atlanta takes its cash elsewhere.
The Hawks can focus on building a team around Horford. Free agents such as Al Jefferson and Andrew Bynum are next-tier big men who could be brought in, and the Hawks could re-sign point guard Jeff Teague.
The other option is to spend more and chase one of the Milwaukee Bucks guards, Monta Ellis or Brandon Jennings.
The Mavericks are in a similar position to the Hawks with money to spend and a star already in place. The possibility of joining Howard with Dirk Nowitzki and new supporting pieces creates a quality option for Howard. Additionally, like Houston, the Mavericks can provide the luxury of no income tax.
Nowitzki said the team isn’t pinning all of its hopes on Howard, however. If it doesn’t work out, the Mavericks still will be ready to spend on other top free agents, he told Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas:
Like last year with Deron Williams, our free agency can’t depend on just one name this year. We’re not going to sign eight, nine one-year deals again. We tried that; it didn’t really work last year.
So there’s plenty of other options out there, I think. You can plug holes with really, really good players -- maybe not superstars but really, really good players -- and still be a playoff team. If that’s the route we have to take if Dwight says no, I’m sure Mark (Cuban) and Donnie (Nelson) will find the right mix of guys.
In other words, if it isn’t Howard, then it could be top free agents such as Smith, Jefferson, Bynum, Millsap or Brandon Jennings.
Waiting on Howard, as it could for all other suitors, may hurt the Mavericks' chances of signing free agents who are already accepting offer sheets elsewhere. A quick decision from Howard benefits all teams involved.
Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors dipped their foot in the pool for Howard. The Warriors, like Houston, will have to utilize a sign-and-trade to land Howard. That could be good news for Los Angeles, who could receive a combination of Andrew Bogut and Klay Thompson in a deal for the center, per Marcus Thompson of the Bay Area News Group.
The Warriors currently don’t have an inside scoring presence, taking the likely departure of free agent Carl Landry into account.
Howard can join a developing core that would still feature budding superstar Stephen Curry, All-Star David Lee and rookie Harrison Barnes, who broke out in the postseason.
The necessary loss of a chip like Thompson, however, does hurt the Warriors’ attractiveness to Howard as a contender.
The Warriors only recently jumped into the effort to sign Howard, certainly an effect of the team’s urgency to develop into a legitimate title contender. However, not winning the sweepstakes doesn’t destroy any concrete plans of their development as challenger out West.
Golden State maintains a valuable center in Bogut (if healthy) and continues its development of young scorers Curry, Thompson and Barnes. The Warriors still need to determine what to do with free agent Jarrett Jack and how they can replace Landry. Lee’s contract will be too hard to move for any true upgrades.
The good news for all teams involved is that he has now met with all suitors, and he should make a decision soon.
When he does, the rest of the dominoes will begin to fall.