The Dwight Howard derby is officially underway, with one team's meeting completed (Houston) and several other suitors (the Lakers Dallas, Atlanta, Golden State) in line. The 27-year-old center is the clear-cut prize of free agency now that Chris Paul is off the table, and teams are right to go all-out in their courtship. As odd as Howard's 2012-13 season might have been, he's still the league's top center when healthy and stands to transform any franchise that lands him this summer.
Which franchise ultimately winds up with Howard could be determined by any number of factors, but for the sake of keeping a wild free-agency period focused and simple, we've endeavored to rank Howard's five potential destinations (including only teams with which he's scheduled to meet) in terms of a pure basketball fit.
1. Houston Rockets
If we look solely at basketball fit, Houston is the definitive option for Howard by way of an amenable offensive system. The key to that system (and the Rockets' appeal by extension) is James Harden, a high-usage ball handler whose game would mesh seamlessly with Howard's. That starts in the two-man game, where Harden would easily rank as the best pick-and-roll partner of Howard's career.
Harden's slippery drives have become such a potent threat that opponents attempt to thwart him at first step, compromising their defense by either drifting away from open shooters or allowing the screener an undeterred roll to the rim. Given the range and accuracy of Houston's perimeter players (every wing or guard in the rotation last season was above average from three-point range, save Jeremy Lin), the latter was often the case last season, to the point that even the limited Omer Asik wound up as one of the more efficient pick-and-roll finishers in the league. Playing off Harden simply makes things that easy, and Howard should earn a steady dose of open dunks and free throws if he'd be willing to sign with the Rockets.
It should be noted that Howard isn't very enthusiastic about playing a pick-and-roll-heavy style, but that doesn't change the fact that he and Harden would destroy opponents in that dimension of the game. There's still ample room in Houston's nascent offense to accommodate Howard's desire to post up while still getting him on the move, a combination that could provide the crux of a wonderfully balanced attack.
The Rockets need Howard quite a bit more than Howard needs the Rockets. Asik did a nice job last season of covering up for his teammates' mistakes on the perimeter, but Howard would cover even more ground, alter even more shots and provide a first-rate foundation from which Houston could shape a playoff-worthy defense.
2. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks are mostly a blank slate at the moment because they entered the offseason with only three players under contract for next season, but the few assets Atlanta does have would work rather well alongside Howard. Forward-center Al Horford, 27, would be a stellar frontcourt complement, largely by sharing the defensive burden (Horford is flexible and effective in coverage) and balancing Howard's post work by operating from the elbow. Point guard Jeff Teague, 25, may not yet be under contract (he's a restricted free agent), but the Hawks have the right to match any offer for the speedy, ever-improving ball handler. Sixth man Lou Williams represents a nice complementary scorer upon his return from knee surgery, and rising sophomore John Jenkins is already an effective spot-up threat who can play off Howard's post game. Signing Howard to a max contract and re-signing Teague would eat up much of Atlanta's cap space, but those moves would also cement a strong three-man core without any immediate risk of age-related decline.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
L.A. has more pieces in place than any other realistic Howard suitor and yet may well be the most difficult to project. Howard should be healthier than he was a season ago and in better position to exert influence on both ends of the floor, though to what degree he can lift up this weird, underachieving team remains to be seen. Kobe Bryant will grapple with rehabilitation and recovery from a torn Achilles tendon, rendering him an unknown in terms of both his availability and on-court effectiveness at least early next season. Steve Nash will likely be in better health but, at 39, he is drifting further and further from his basketball prime. Pau Gasol seemed to develop some nice chemistry with Howard at the end of last season, but his place on this team is precarious, especially considering the luxury-tax implications of a Howard deal.
All in all, they make for a strange bunch. But at worst, the Lakers are looking at one more haphazard season followed by a virtually spotless cap sheet. Nash is the only Laker under contract for 2014-15, the contracts of Bryant, Gasol and all of the team's role players coming off the books. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak would have his work cut out for him in potentially re-signing Bryant while adding sufficient complementary pieces to contend, but that financial freedom gives the Lakers an opportunity to build squarely around Howard and what he does best as Kobe and Nash near the end of their careers.
4. Dallas Mavericks
From a basketball standpoint, Dallas' pitch won't be all that different from what Los Angeles can offer. If anything, the immediate ceiling is a bit lower; the Mavs will make their case to Howard as a next-year proposition, more or less conceding the fact that they won't be able to make other significant additions this summer. Dirk Nowitzki is owed $22.7 million in 2013-14, and when his salary is combined with a potential max deal for Howard and the Mavs' remaining guaranteed contracts for next season (Vince Carter, Jae Crowder, Shane Larkin* and Gal Mekel, assuming that Shawn Marion is eventually traded), Dallas would likely have precious little space to make any more notable free-agent plays this offseason. That would change in a year's time when Nowitzki could be re-signed at a discount, potentially leaving enough cap room to sign a second-tier free agent in July 2014.
In the meantime, a team with Howard and Nowitzki would be practically guaranteed a postseason spot. The two stars would play off one another beautifully, as both big men occupy different spaces on the floor and thus stretch defenses in opposite directions. When Nowitzki has the ball or participates in pick-and-rolls, Howard would act as a first-rate clean-up rebounder and a brutal dive-cut option for defenses that tilt in fear of Nowitzki's shooting. When Howard looks to post up or streak toward the rim, Nowitzki would make for one of the league's most potent stretch bigs, spotting up either beyond the arc or just inside it.
Howard would be the defender and rebounder Nowitzki needs in a frontcourt partner, and Nowitzki would be the floor-stretching threat who could free up room for Howard to work inside. That the Mavs are so far down on this list shouldn't be seen as an indictment. Nowitzki's age, the team's iffy immediate prospects and the handful of further moves to come in 2014 make Dallas a slightly more questionable spot than others in basketball terms, but the Mavs are still a solid destination.
*Larkin is technically a cap hold at this point, as he has not officially signed his rookie deal with the Mavs.
??. Golden State Warriors
We can't know yet how well Howard would fit with the Warriors because we don't have an idea of what Golden State would have to give up to obtain him. Unlike the other teams on this list, the Warriors don't have the cap room (or even the potential cap room) necessary to sign Howard outright, leaving them to make their case as a sign-and-trade possibility that would require the Lakers' agreement. In such an exchange, one would only assume that Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes would draw L.A.'s interest, with Stephen Curry set aside as an untouchable commodity. But that's as far as the reporting and conjecture go. We don't know if the Lakers would be amenable to acquiring the lavishly paid David Lee in a potential swap, if they would demand both Thompson and Barnes as payment for their compliance, or if any of Golden State's other assets could help move the needle. There's still too much in flux regarding a potential trade package to assume what the Warriors might look like with Howard in uniform, though a pairing with Curry alone would make this a great -- if highly improbable -- match.