Like a Disney fairy tale, when the clock struck midnight Dwight Howard has gotten what he always wanted, what he has earned the right to by playing out his contract:
He is a free agent. As of this moment.
For the next 48 hours — starting with the Rockets just after the official start of free agency at midnight as Sunday flipped to Monday and running for a couple days — six teams will come to Los Angeles and get their chance to make a pitch to Howard. All of them will offer him a max contract (the Lakers can offer more with his Bird rights) but this will swing more on other factors, not the dollars.
Anyone who tells you right now they know what Howard is going to do is selling something — nobody knows. Not even Howard. You can handicap the field, but the fact is he has wanted this moment, he has wanted teams to come recruit him, and he’s going to listen. He is going to savor this. And we know from experience Howard is not the most decisive guy ever, so this thing could go just about any direction.
Here are the teams walking in the door, in my perceived order of their chances.
• Houston Rockets. Howard’s leaky entourage is saying he is making a decision based on basketball reasons, and if that is the case Houston may well win this thing. The Rockets are a good team already with James Harden as the playmaker and good role players around him such as Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. Add a healthy Dwight Howard to this roster and they are instant contenders. We can debate if they beat Oklahoma City or San Antonio, let alone the Heat or the best of the East, but they are in the conversation.
In addition, the Rockets have strong ties to the Chinese market (from the Yao Ming era and now with Lin), a lot of their games are still shown there, which would be good for Howard’s branding. Hakeem Olajuwon will be part of the group making a pitch to Howard.
The question is the offense — the Rockets will say they will feature him. And they will, to an extent. But this will still also be Harden’s team. For the Rockets to be truly effective Howard will have to run the pick-and-roll with Harden — last season Howard scored 1.29 points per possession and shot 79.6 percent as the roll man, he scored 0.74 points per possession on 44.5 percent shooting in the post. Whichever team lands Howard needs to use him more this way and keep him moving, not just posting up.
• Los Angeles Lakers. I can think of 30 million reasons the Lakers are not out of this discussion. Howard is a guy just coming off back surgery that impacted his play last season, and the Lakers can offer five years and $117 million (thanks to larger raises) than other teams can offer ($87 million). Yes, Howard is going to get a contract after this one and teams in Texas can sell the sales tax angle, but $30 million is a lot of scratch. It matters.
We all know the Lakers season went sideways fast last year and that nobody really enjoyed the experience. What the Lakers have to sell is three things. First, that last season was a one-off — injuries and a coaching change threw the chemistry off, but this team can be the team that went 28-12 in the middle of the season again and can challenge in the West. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash will be part of the pitch to Howard and his relationship with Kobe is not as strained as some think. Plus, with Kobe out for the start of the season and slowed by his Achilles injury, Howard has the chance to take charge and make this his team, even if Mike D’Antoni is the coach.
Second, the Lakers will remind Howard that come the summer of 2014 only he and Steve Nash (for one more year) would be on the books — they plan to rebuild this roster around him. He is the future of the Lakers, and he can follow in the footsteps of Mikan, Wilt, Kareem, and Shaq and win titles in Los Angeles. Third, the Lakers will sell Los Angeles — if he wants an opportunity to grow his brand through movies, television and advertising opportunities, L.A. is better than any other city on his list.
(If the Lakers do not get Howard, don’t bet on a sign-and-trade to help another team out. It could happen, but the Lakers would want picks and expiring contracts to help them rebuild, they are not taking Asik back from Houston.)
• Dallas Mavericks. Mark Cuban has built an organization that guys want to come play for and that is part of the pitch. They also have shown they know how to build a title team. Howard would play for a season or two with Dirk Nowitzki but soon the Mavericks have the room to completely reshape the roster and build around Howard. Much like he enjoyed in Orlando, he would be the main face of the franchise soon.
• Atlanta Hawks. Come home, come on home to Atlanta… except that Howard has never shown a desire to return and play in his native city. What they can sell is a max offer and the chance for him to be the face of a roster rebuilt around him — Al Horford and he would make the best front line in the NBA, and that size could challenge the Heat. The Hawks are a long shot but they are in the room.
• Golden State Warriors. There were questions for a while if they would even get in the room, but once in they have a hard sell. The basketball argument is that him in the post with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson raining threes, they are contenders. The hard part is they can only make this work as a sign-and-trade, one that would have the Lakers taking back Andrew Bogut and some other pieces (Thompson?). As I noted above, the Lakers are more likely to just go with what they have and bank cap space for a 2014 roster reboot if Howard walks, they are not going to go for an in-division trade (same goes for the Clippers rumors). But the Warriors will get to make their pitch.
So when will we know? There is a buzz that Howard wants to make his decision early, not mull it over for a week. That said, this is Howard, so who knows? Anytime between July 3 and July 10 he could make his call. Your guess on when is as good as mine.