Will Dwight Howard take the court for his third team in three years once the 2013-14 season rolls around?
CBSSports.com reported Sunday that Howard, set to become an unrestricted free agent in July, is "intrigued" by at least two teams other than the Lakers, who acquired him from the Magic in a four-team blockbuster trade in 2012.
Though Howard is adamant his free agency not be marred by the circus-like environment that surrounded his departure from Orlando last summer, word already has spread to multiple levels of his support staff that Howard re-signing with the Lakers is far from a done deal.
With six weeks to go before Howard becomes an unrestricted free agent, the team that is said to intrigue him the most is the Houston Rockets, according to multiple people briefed on internal conversations surrounding Howard's free-agent decision.
The Mavericks represent another franchise that intrigues Howard, and Dallas is a minor transaction or two away from having enough room to sign Howard outright as an unrestricted free agent. Howard plans to explore all such options, and a person briefed on his plans told CBSSports.com that there are "several" teams the free-agent center is "going to take a hard look at."
After getting ejected from the Lakers' final loss of the season, Howard vowed to take a step back and assess the situation before making a decision.
“I’m going to step away from everything for a couple weeks and clear my head before I do or talk about anything, as far as next season,” Howard said. “I think I deserve that. That’s what I’m going to do.”
Howard can re-sign with the Lakers for up to five years and can only sign a contract for up to four years with another team.
“I don’t want to talk about anything that’s for the upcoming season, next year,” Howard said in April. “I just want to reflect on this year and try to get myself better, come back 100 percent.”
ESPNLA.com reported that Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak said in April that he was "hopeful" and optimistic" that Howard would return.
"I know in my heart that this is a place where I think he should be," Kupchak said. "We have a great legacy, great history of great players in this city dating back to when the franchise came here in 1960, and he certainly fits the mold."
Both the Rockets and Mavericks have reportedly had interest in Howard for years, dating back to his time in Orlando. Last August, Rockets GM Daryl Morey told Houston's KBME -- via SportsRadioInterviews.com -- that he nearly consummated a trade with the Magic for Howard before the Lakers acquired him in a four-team blockbuster.
"I do feel like it was close but they did their diligence and they were searching for something they thought they liked even more and they liked this trade better than anything we could offer. I promise you Rob knows what he’s doing and he thought this was best for Orlando and I think people will see over time that he’s a very good executive.”
Houston's stock is unquestionably hot after acquiring All-Star guard James Harden last fall and making the playoffs for the first time in 2009. With a big, warm-weather market, loads of cap space and a number of prospects who could be included to facilitate trades, the Rockets are sure to be linked to virtually every major free agent in rumors this summer. Assuming Howard's priority is still championship contention, he could do far worse than the Rockets, who could potentially jump into the Western Conference's top-four seeds if they acquired him this summer.
Give Harden and Howard a year to gel, give Morey another summer to chase a third star or fill out the rotation with quality veterans, and it's not inconceivable that the Rockets -- in a best-case scenario -- could make a serious run at the 2015 Finals. Is that scenario preferable to the Lakers, who will have completely clean books, except for Howard and Steve Nash, when it comes time to go superstar shopping in July 2014? And is there really a destination -- Houston or otherwise -- that will make it worth leaving the Los Angeles market and all of the amenities and advantages it represents for a player of Howard's stature?
An SI.com panel opined in April that Howard would eventually re-sign with the Lakers, mostly for financial reasons. Houston did loom as a possible alternative.
Howard, annoyingly indecisive, is within his rights to re-evaluate the L.A. experiment after [Kobe] Bryant's game-changing, franchise-altering Achilles tendon injury. Howard fought through his own injuries in a disappointing season and he's now forced to decide whether he can handle being patient through another season before the Lakers can get into a position to build a legitimate contender. That's rough, and there could be greener pastures. For instance, the young Rockets are a fun-loving, up-and-down, three-point-jacking machine that posted the same record as the Lakers even with Bryant playing 78 games and having an excellent offensive season. How high could Howard take them?
Prior to the trade deadline, The Point Forward explored possible trade partners for the Lakers, and Rob Mahoney suggested that the Rockets were the "most interesting" possibility, but he wondered whether it would really be a fit.
In theory, Houston could give Howard a young team to grow and win with, a coach who appreciates the post in Kevin McHale and a team that could feed him by the bucket-full in pick-and-roll situations. But if Howard gets moody over having to run high screens for Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, why would he be any more amenable to doing so for Harden and Lin?
In March, The Point Forward concluded that the Lakers had no choice but to keep Howard despite a disappointing season for both team and player.
Intentionally or not, Howard has spent this season testing the limits of the long-held assumption that premier big men are worth every dollar that you can legally throw at them. As the Lakers have struggled, his game has been compared to Timofey Mozgov’s, his effort level has been questioned, his public comments have produced one disaster after another, his personality has created extensive friction and he has played through a back injury only to incur a shoulder injury. Howard remains a no-brainer max guy if only because the prevailing sentiment is that it can’t get any worse.
Capped out to a ridiculous degree, the Lakers have hitched their wagon to Howard’s horse and have no reasonable means for replacing him. Howard, then, is the rare NBA player who can kill significant portions of his own reputation on and off the court without doing any damage whatsoever to his market value, thanks to the ceiling created by the salary cap. It’s scary to think about how much Howard’s earning power would have dropped over the last six months if the NBA operated with an uncapped system.