The anticipation of the free-agent summer of 2012 has been built up to be every bit as good, if not better, than the famous free agency period of 2012. In a deep free agent class, Dwight Howard is the cream of the crop.
Howard is a freakishly athletic, seven-foot tall center who was drafted by the Orlando Magic in 2004 as a project out of high school. Since then, he has been named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year three times, made five All-Star teams and has led the league in rebounds and blocks several times.
Add that to the fact that he's played at least 78 games in each of his professional seasons and you have one heck of a durable presence anchoring the team.
Offensively, Howard has been a project for the Magic in the best way a player can be considered a project. That is to say, Howard is a very one-dimensional offensive player, but he's really good at that dimension.
Howard is a pure monster around the rim. He has always been a thunderous dunker and has improved his finesse game around the rim.
Once he gets away from the rim, Howard's offensive game takes a drastic turn to the negative. Howard has no shooting touch and is bad at the free-throw line. Having said that, Howard is so good around the rim, and at getting second-chance points, that he makes himself a weapon on offense rather than a liability.
Heading into his big free-agent summer, Howard has been vocal about having his list of teams to choose from. It seems like Howard is already making his plan to leave Orlando, but the Magic seem dead set on doing everything to keep their big man.
The following is a list of teams who will most likely make a run at Dwight Howard. Some of them will have cap room available as their team stands, others will have to decide they want Howard by the trade deadline and clear cap room to make space for him.
Either way, it is likely that Howard will end up with one of these teams come the 2012-2013 season. Whichever team lands him will have a virtually indestructible force at the center position for years to come, which is something that is rare in today's NBA.
The Orlando Magic have got to be worried that the face of their franchise is getting ready to pack his things and leave, much like a certain big man did after the 1995-96 season.
Howard seems upset, borderline unhappy, in Orlando at this point, which doesn't seem to fit his former bubbly and eccentric personality. There has been quite a bit of turnover with the Magic, and Howard has to feel like the team's chances of winning a title are low.
Having said that, the Magic are going to do whatever they have to do to make sure Howard remains in Orlando. Having watched other teams lose their franchise players (see: Cleveland and LeBron James, Toronto and Chris Bosh, New Orleans and Chris Paul), you'd have to think that the Magic brain trust would be shopping Howard if they really felt they had no chance to keep him.
As of now, that's not happening.
The Magic will fight to put their best foot forward and make sure they present themselves as the best choice for Dwight Howard. At this point, it would be considered a major surprise if the Magic managed to keep their star.
As we all know, NBA free agency is full of surprises.
Chicago is a team that will most likely make a push for Dwight Howard in both the trade deadline season and the free-agency period.
After resigning star point guard Derrick Rose to a five year extension, the Bulls should be looking for a way to improve their chances to go from a great regular season team to a dominant playoff team. In order to do that, they're going to have to get creative with their cap.
With Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah each making more than $10 million for the Bulls, they are going to have a tough time clearing the space to sign Howard.
To add to that difficulty, the Bulls again have one of the best records in the NBA during the regular season. It would be difficult to justify any cap-cutting moves at the trade deadline to try to make a push for Howard in the offseason.
However, if the Bulls' front office looks at the current roster and thinks the same way I do, which is that they are a team built for the regular season and not the playoffs, they may be willing to make those moves to free space. It wouldn't be popular with fans, but it would ultimately be best for the organization if they could pair Rose and Howard.
To think of the two young stars running the court in Chicago is mind-boggling. The team would be so athletic and strong, they'd never get out-muscled. The combination of Rose and Howard would have the potential to be right on par with the best point guard-center combinations of all time.
Just that thought should be enough to get the Bulls on the Dwight Howard bandwagon.
The New York Knicks are an interesting scenario for Dwight Howard, who would clearly enjoy playing in the Big Apple.
With the additions of Amar'e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, the Knicks have quickly built up the payroll which they worked so hard to eliminate before the summer of 2010. In order to afford a player like Dwight Howard, the Knicks would have to take some cost-cutting measures by the trade deadline. Before this season, that seemed unlikely.
After a 13-15 start, the scenario seems a little more plausible.
With the inability of Anthony and Stoudemire to mesh, it would seem like the Knicks would be willing to part with Stoudemire in order to make room for Dwight Howard. That leaves the team with two centers in Howard and Chandler. The next logical step would be for the organization to look to move Chandler for a player who can play on the court with Howard and Anthony.
A Howard-Anthony combination makes more sense than a Stoudemire-Anthony combination on many levels.
First of all, though he likes to be involved, Howard isn't a player who constantly needs to have the offense run through him. That role would be entirely Anthony's in this scenario. That allows Anthony to play the game his way, while Howard can continue to get offensive rebounds, easy dunks and play great defense.
With Stoudemire and Anthony, the Knicks have two players who constantly want the ball. Substituting Howard for Stoudemire would eliminate that issue and allow the offense to flow much better.
So yes, it would take a little bit of creativity on the team's part, but a Howard-Anthony combination definitely looks better than the mess the Knicks are currently dealing with.
Howard clearly has stars in his eyes, and there is no bigger stage in the NBA than Madison Square Garden. If the Knicks determine that they must have Howard, they could certainly make themselves a top destination for the big man.
That's a big if, but the Knicks have shown that they will take drastic measures to try to get marquee players. This would be another step in that direction.
Dwight Howard could be the player to make the Knicks a championship contender once again.
The next possible destination for Dwight Howard is another team in the New York City area, the future Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets are the team which has been involved in the Howard speculation longer than any other. Ever since Mikhail Prokhorov took control of the team, the Nets have been in play for just about every free agent. Unfortunately for the 8-21 Nets, they haven't been able to appeal to most of those players.
The Nets, much like the Knicks, spent the majority of the few seasons before 2010 clearing space to try to land a new franchise player to help them create a new identity. Unlike the Knicks, the Nets haven't been able to make moves to acquire talent after failing in the summer of 2010.
They were able to bring in Deron Williams, the star point guard who spent the first part of his career in Utah. Now, the Nets are hoping they can lure Howard to create a stellar point guard-center tandem to lead their team for years.
After this season, the Nets will be able to shed almost 19 million dollars in payroll by losing Mehmet Okur and Kris Humphries, which will leave them plenty of room to offer Howard a max deal. They will definitely make themselves appealing to Howard.
The question is whether the Nets have enough talent on the roster now to compete, even with Dwight Howard. It would be hard to imagine the Nets being any better than the Magic currently are even with Howard and Williams.
For a player looking for an improvement, the Nets may not have enough to offer Dwight Howard.
The thought of the Los Angeles Clippers is almost too exciting to bear. Lob City adding one of the few dunkers who can rival Blake Griffin?
A combination of Chris Paul, Griffin and Howard would strike fear into defenses all over the league, and it would certainly legitimize the Clippers (yes, the CLIPPERS) as a true powerhouse team in the NBA.
Howard and Paul would allow Griffin continue to improve his game in the NBA, while not even being the number one option on his team. That fact alone would make Blake Griffin that much more of a threat. The dual presence of Howard and Griffin would also open the perimeter for the Clippers more than any other team in the league, creating open shots for wing players all the time.
No disrespect to my fellow Texas A&M alum, DeAndre Jordan, but Dwight Howard would be a massive improvement in the middle for the Clippers. Jordan, himself, is a solid defender and athletic dunker, but he's not anywhere near the level of Dwight Howard.
If the Clippers can manage to trade Jordan for an expiring contract, they can clear about $10 million in space this offseason. More could be cleared if an unhappy Mo Williams decides not to pick up his player option.
There are quite a few things that would need to happen to make the Clippers a legitimate contender to land Howard, but it is more than feasible to think that they could pull it off. If that happens, look out NBA. Lob City would become a whole lot more dangerous.
We can keep it in the same building for the next possible destination for Dwight Howard.
The Los Angeles Lakers will most definitely be in the running for Howard, and if they land him, they would go from an aging team right back to the dominant team we're used to seeing in purple and yellow.
In order to make this happen in free agency, the Lakers are going to have to make some moves at the trade deadline. They've already shown a willingness to move Pau Gasol. If they can ship him off for an expiring contract or two, they'll be in position to make a maximum offer to Howard.
Obviously, the previous deal the Lakers had in place for Gasol would have brought back Chris Paul. This would be much more of a gamble, but the payoff could be great. Gasol is a good player, and a solid teammate, but the chance to pair up a still-dominant Kobe Bryant with Dwight Howard would be worth the risk.
The other option the Lakers would have would be to decline the team option they currently hold on Andrew Bynum and let him walk in free agency. Then, the Lakers wouldn't have to pay him the $16-plus million they would owe him next year and they could dedicate that money to Dwight Howard.
Should the Lakers give up on Bynum? He's basically a poor man's Howard. If they have the chance to get the real Howard, they should do it and let Bynum walk.
The Lakers would then be able to pair a dominant inside force like Howard with a solid perimeter big man in Gasol. Add in Kobe and you have a very dangerous combination.
If the Lakers can clear the cap room and give Howard the money he is looking for, they could go right back to being the dominant team in basketball for the next several years. Look for them to at least test the market for both Gasol and Bynum to see if they can make that happen.
Perhaps the most intriguing team in the possible Dwight Howard free-agency race of 2012 is the Dallas Mavericks.
The reigning NBA champions have had a bit of a bumpy season so far. The loss of Tyson Chandler has softened the middle for the Mavs. The addition of Lamar Odom has caused nothing more than headaches for everyone from Mark Cuban to Chloe Kardashian.
It hasn't been the season the champs had hoped for.
Having said that, the Mavericks are going to be in position to make a major move in the free-agent market. Jason Terry and Jason Kidd are both free agents who probably won't get the large salaries they have had in recent years. The Mavericks also hold a team option on Lamar Odom. It's very difficult to imagine they would pick that up for more than $8 million.
Assuming they are able to cut the contracts of Terry, Kidd or both, the Mavericks will have plenty of money to pursue Dwight Howard, and he would be a perfect fit in Dallas.
The Mavericks are currently feeling the effects of losing a physical, defensive-minded center like Chandler. Even with players like Dirk Nowitzki, Terry and Kidd, it was Chandler who continued to come up with huge plays for the Mavericks during their championship run. The chance to make the massive upgrade to Dwight Howard should be a no-brainer for Cuban and his front office.
Pairing Howard up with Nowitzki, and then surrounding them with talented players would allow the Mavericks to go on a sustained championship contention run. It's for this reason, and because they don't have to do anything too drastic to free up space, that I feel like the Mavericks are the frontrunners to land Dwight Howard, especially if he hits the free-agent market.