You thought you'd finally heard the last of speculation concerning where Dwight Howard will play once the Orlando Magic traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers, didn't you?
Howard and his camp have already made it clear that he won't sign an extension to stay in L.A. beyond this season. Rather, he'll play out the remainder of his contract and explore the open market via free agency come July 1, 2013.
Whether that means he'll stay in the City of Angels or take his talents elsewhere remains to be seen. His options, though, will all be dictated by numbers, both big and small.
With that in mind, let's have a look at six numbers in particular that will dictate the terms of next summer's impending Dwightmare.
That's the maximum payday (in dollars) the Lakers can offer Howard via free agency, per ESPN's Larry Coon. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement allows teams to retain their own free agents for up to five years, with higher yearly salaries (and, in turn, overall dollar figures) than others can.
This, among other things, puts the Lakers in the driver's seat to keep Howard in purple and gold beyond the 2012-13 season. He won't find more money anywhere else in the NBA, and if his inaugural season in L.A. lives up to expectations, he probably won't even want to try.
That's approximately how much the Lakers will owe in luxury tax penalties for 2013-14 if they're able to re-sign Dwight next summer (again, per CBA guru Larry Coon).
L.A.'s payroll figures to balloon back into $100 million territory with Howard aboard, which would put the team about $30 million above the luxury tax line. With the spending deterrents built into the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, that $30 million will cost the Lakers about $85 million on top of what they'd already be paying out in salaries.
That's a rather steep figure, even for an organization that spends as lavishly as the Lakers do. Much of the money from the team's new TV deal with Time Warner Cable that would otherwise be used to offset these costs will instead be funneled into the NBA's new revenue-sharing program, which punishes big-market, big-money franchises even further.
And unlike, say, New York Knicks owner James Dolan, Dallas Mavericks money man Mark Cuban or Brooklyn Nets billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, the Buss family—which has owned and operated the Lakers since 1979—doesn't have a massive fortune or an ancillary business from which to draw financial strength. The majority of their wealth is directly derived from the Lakers, thereby rendering the team's profitability that much more crucial to the family's continued ownership.
Incurring an additional $85 million bill certainly doesn't help in that regard.
However, if the Buss family is willing to bite the bullet for the next two years, they'll be able to restructure their payroll in 2014 when everyone except Steve Nash (and, perhaps, Howard) is due to come off the books.
That's the maximum length, in years, of a contract that Howard can sign with a team other than the Lakers next summer.
According to Larry Coon, the most anyone other than the Lakers can offer Howard is $81,114,453 through 2015-16—or, more than $28 million less than what he'd likely garner from L.A.
Taking a shorter deal might actually be in Howard's best interest, though. As Larry Coon details in another piece, it may well behoove Howard to re-enter free agency at the age of 31 when he can garner another lucrative, five-year deal before he officially becomes an old fogie in the eyes of the CBA.
Then again, should Howard decide to stay in L.A., he could have his new deal negotiated in such a way that he'd be able to opt out after four years and renegotiate another long-term contract anyway.
That's how much the Dallas Mavericks—Howard's chief suitor outside of L.A.—have on their books in salary for the 2013-14 season.
It's a number that can shrink significantly depending how the front office decides to go about its business, and it's one that will have to shrink if they're to have enough cap space to sign Superman.
Assuming the cap stays around $60 million, the Mavs—who've long been on Howard's list of preferred destinations—would be able to offer Howard a maximum starting salary of less than $16 million. Such would be a substantial cut from what he's currently earning and what he'd be slated to take home with either the Lakers or another team with more financial flexibility to spare.
That being said, there are ways for GM Donnie Nelson to make it work. If Howard were to become so enamored with Big D as to ditch L.A., Nelson could attempt to work out a sign-and-trade with the Lakers.
He also could decline to make qualifying offers to Darren Collison and Rodrigue Beaubois, both of whom are slated to be restricted free agents next summer. That way Nelson and owner Mark Cuban could acquire Howard outright, and then use various exceptions for non-taxpaying teams to fill out the rest of the roster on the cheap.
With a frontcourt of Howard and Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs wouldn't need much else to vault themselves back into the championship conversation.
That's how many players the Atlanta Hawks—a dark horse in the race to land Howard's signature next summer—have under contract beyond the 2012-13 season.
At present, the Hawks would be on the hook for Al Horford ($12 million) and rookie John Jenkins ($1.3 million), with Jeff Teague due a qualifying offer of just under $3.5 million as a restricted free agent.
Such a tiny payroll would leave GM Danny Ferry more than $40 million in cap space with which to pursue Howard, a hometown hero who played his high school ball at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. Some of that could be spent to keep Josh Smith and Anthony Morrow, both free agents-to-be and among Superman's closest friends, in the ATL as a means of luring Howard back to Georgia.
The rest presumably would be reserved for Howard's already hefty bank account.
That's the number Chris Paul wears on his jersey.
And which jersey Paul chooses to don next summer could determine (or at least influence) Howard's destination.
Paul will be a free agent after this season when his deal with the Los Angeles Clippers comes due. The Lakers tried to bring both superstars to L.A. in December 2011 and might've pulled it off, too, if it hadn't been for that meddling commissioner. Instead, they'll have to settle for lining up Howard and Steve Nash next to Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
The Hawks will have the requisite cap room to make a run at both of them and, if they time things properly, will be able to dip their toes in the luxury tax to bring some of their own free agents (most notably Josh Smith) along for the ride.
For what it's worth, Atlanta has the added advantage of being the unofficial capital of the South, which may or may not prove particularly appealing to Paul, a native of rural North Carolina.
The Mavs, too, might have the financial wherewithal to bring a Superman-CP3 pairing to fruition, albeit with the help of some creative maneuvering through and around the new CBA.
Of course, if Paul decides he'd rather stay in L.A. and Clips owner Donald Sterling ponies up the max to keep him, then the Hawks, the Mavs and whoever else will have to find other ways to entice Howard to lend them his John Hancock.