ORLANDO, Fla. -- Will he stay, or will he go?
It's the question that hovered over Dwight Howard as he played host to what seemed like his going away party in All-Star weekend. It's the question that will be the driving force behind the Magic's decision-making in these crucial weeks as the March 15 trade deadline looms and they continue to hold onto the notion that their franchise centerpiece will want to stay in Orlando long-term.
Sources with knowledge of Howard's thinking say nothing has changed about his outlook. And while his wish-list of teams still includes the Nets, Lakers and Mavs, New Jersey is far and away the leader.
Though it may pain the purists, it's not just about basketball for Howard. He wants to take his brand global, to leverage the international influence of Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov while building his brand as Brooklyn's first star. His wandering eye is enticed not only by the Barclays Center that is set to open next season, but the businesses in the booming area around it that could afford many off-court opportunities. He wants, as one source said, to "be Kobe Bryant, not be with Kobe Bryant." Of course, it's hardly that simple.
For starters, the Magic appear undecided on which direction they'll go. Now that the All-Star festivities are behind them, it appears they still might hold on to him until the end with hopes for a change of heart. Among the many complications here is that any and all hopes of landing Lakers center Andrew Bynum -- the best big man in the league to fill the Howard void -- appear to be dashed because of Howard's view of the Lakers.
Close friends of Howard say he was, in fact, informed that Bryant sees him as a second or third option on a championship-caliber team if he came to Los Angeles. And while the stance has its merits on the surface, it simply didn't help matters to engage in any sort of alpha dog discussion if that's what indeed went down. The Buss family that owns the Lakers, in turn, is said to be irked by Bryant's alleged role in the matter and hopeful that Howard -- who they see as the business and basketball draw for the next decade -- can still be convinced otherwise. But Howard's focus, one source close to him insists, was on the Nets regardless of Bryant's perceived influence.
Beyond the arena and the Big Apple love that would await him with the Nets, point guard and fellow free-agent-to-be Deron Williams is the basketball allure. Williams is waiting and watching the Howard saga like the rest of us, his future also depending on the outcome. It's not about the 10-25 record the Nets have entering the second half of the season, but whether New Jersey general manager Billy King can concoct a deal for Howard that may have to include three or four teams. If not, as is widely known, Williams is eyeing a return to his hometown team in Dallas and the Mavericks' dream of landing both players (which is still far-fetched) remains alive.
Howard could sign with the Nets in free agency, but getting to his chosen destination via trade means the chance to sign a five-year deal with 7.5 percent raises versus a four-year deal with 4.5 percent raise. It's hardly the biggest factor in this equation, but the Nets will be doing all they can to make it happen in these next few weeks.
Speaking of frustrated Lakers folks, Bynum wasn't afraid to share his thoughts on the team's sputtering offense over the weekend. The Lakers, who are fifth in the West at 20-14, 22nd in scoring (93.1 points per game) and 12th in field-goal percentage (44.9). Barring any trades involving Pau Gasol (who remains on the market) or Bynum, it'll be worth watching closely to see if first-year coach Mike Brown makes any system changes and executes the hopes of ownership that the team runs from the inside-out more often.
Bynum's role has already increased from last season (7.6 shots per game to 12), despite the fact that Bryant made it clear in his postseason press conference that the youngster would remain third on the totem pole behind him and Gasol. Still, it's been some time since Bryant controlled the offense to this extreme extent.
He is the runaway league leader in shots attempted (23.7 field goals per game, second to Kevin Durant's 19.6), partly because of a serious increase in minutes played (38.2 minutes per this season compared 33.9 last season). Still, his portion of the offensive load is nearly the same as Gasol and Bynum combined (23.8 field goals per game). Offensive creativity, as Bynum not-so-subtly noted, is sorely lacking.
"Defensively, we've got things locked down," Bynum said on Friday. "Offensively, we need to come up with some new tricks in the second half of the season ... new sets, new plays, new actions."
Two days later, Bynum elaborated on his view of the offense.
"All I'm really talking about is how to play basketball together, figuring it out and putting ourselves in spots to win games, changing up cuts that we're making," Bynum said. "Teams are starting to adjust to me on the block, double-teaming me, triple-teaming me, so outlets should be a little bit different, should be more what I'm comfortable with."
Less isolation play and more ball movement is a must, according to Bynum.
"We look phenomenal when we move the basketball and score a bunch of points," Bynum said. "We have knock-down shooters who are capable of knocking down shots, so when that ball is moving around the court and we're playing free, I think everything is great."
Meanwhile, the bigger picture question of Bynum and his place in the league continues to unfold. Even with the right knee soreness he experienced before the break and the routine injection he took that limited him to six minutes in the All-Star Game, this remains one of the longest stretches of good health he has experienced in seven seasons.
Bynum, who bluntly said that "there's a bank in every city" when asked about trade rumors on Friday, considers himself the second-best center in the league. And for all the talk of Bynum wanting to be traded to his own team to become a No. 1 option, he downplayed that notion.
"I think I would've matured a bit faster if I had my own team, but I've got two championship rings and a lot of wins," he said. "I play with the best player right now in the game and I played under the best coach (Phil Jackson) for the first six years of my career, so I wouldn't trade that for anything."
He does, however, understand what the Lakers see in Howard.
"The dude is an amazing athlete, a great player, and obviously statistically I think his stats speak for themselves," Bynum said of Howard.