Reasons to Doubt Dwight Howard Will Return to LA Lakers Next Season
Dwight Howard has right around 30 million reasons to want to re-up with the Los Angeles Lakers after the 2012-13 NBA season. After Monday night's loss to the Chicago Bulls, Howard has 24 (and counting) reasons to consider making his venture to Southern California a one-year vacation.
The 30 million figure comes from the fact that Lakers can offer Howard a five-year contract worth right around $118 million this summer. The most any other team can offer is a four-year maximum coming in right around $88 million.
And the 24 number? That's the number of losses Mike D'Antoni's squad has after dropping its record to a paltry 17-24 at the season's halfway mark. With the Lakers and Howard both struggling, it's become a popular worry that the NBA's best center will bolt come July.
The most likely scenario, of course, remains Howard returning to the Lakers. It would be a historical anomaly for a player to eschew an extra year of financial stability—especially for a player at Howard's price. Even Chris Bosh and LeBron James leaving right around $15 million on the table to take their talents to South Beach was somewhat mitigated by Florida's lack of income tax.
But as more losses and inexplicable decisions pile up in Los Angeles, the prospect of Howard leaving has slowly evolved from laughable to at least worthy of discussion. The Lakers are an unmitigated disaster, a team that has satiated every schadenfreudian fan alive who tossed their laptop out a window when Howard was traded to Los Angeles.
If they miss the playoffs, Howard could very easily decide that the rampant criticism and spotlight is too much and walk via free agency. One thing's for certain: He won't lack interested suitors.
With that in mind, let's take a look at a few reasons—both external and internal—why Howard may consider leaving a heaping wad of cash on the table to leave the Lakers this summer.
(All stats are up-to-date as of Jan. 21.)
Howard's Frustration with Team Chemistry & Possible Kobe Bryant Feud
Kobe Bryant and Howard nearly came to blows after a New Year's Day loss against the Philadelphia 76ers. Or they didn't. As always with rumors and innuendo, it all depends on whose side of the spin you choose to believe.
According to the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy, Howard had to be restrained from fighting Bryant after the Lakers guard repeated a popular criticism of his teammate: that he's soft. In fact, Bondy's sources told him that Bryant even took it a step farther by citing longtime Howard rival Shaquille O'Neal in his criticisms.
The mamba vs d12 !! It's on lol twitter.com/kobebryant/sta…— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) January 7, 2013
At that point the story mostly died down. However, Jalen Rose appeared on Bill Simmons' "B.S. Report" podcast on Jan. 8 and made it very clear that inside sources told him that the altercation happened.
It all depends on who you want to believe. At this point in the season, I'm more inclined to believe Rose and Bondy's side of things. Just reading the tea leaves of Howard's quotes around that time seem to mark a particular unhappiness with where the Lakers were (and maybe still are) as a team.
Here's Howard lamenting the Lakers' lack of chemistry, per Shelburne:
It's something we have to do to get better. We have to play like we like each other. Even if we don't want to be friends off the court, whatever that may be, when we step in between the lines or we step in the locker room or the gym, we have to respect each other and what we bring to the table.
That doesn't sound like a player who is feeling a whole lot of respect from his teammates. It's admittedly possible that Howard and Bryant did have a confrontation; that it was a one-time spat and the Lakers center just happened to be speaking to the media at the wrong time.
But if Howard is unhappy and losing, it's certainly a viable enough reason for him to consider skipping town.
Mike D'Antoni's Coaching Style and Personnel Aren't Working
When Mike D'Antoni was hired as Lakers coach, there were many pundits (including myself) who thought the hire could be a disaster. Not only did the team choose any coach on the big blue marble over Phil Jackson, it picked a guy who wanted to run an up-tempo system with a bunch of guys in their mid-30s who already struggle defensively.
It's pretty safe to say D'Antoni's tenure could not have gone worse thus far. The Lakers are 12-19 with D'Antoni at the helm, were tied for 18th in defensive efficiency coming into Monday night and have still not settled on a permanent rotation.
Despite a hefty sample pointing to his system not working, D'Antoni has shown very little interest in changing. Quite the opposite, actually. He permanently vanquished Pau Gasol to the bench in favor of Earl Clark, the former only being the most skilled post player in the NBA and the latter being a guy who was one step above a D-Leaguer three weeks ago.
D'Antoni's reasoning for benching Gasol? Because apparently the Lakers are better when they're playing small, according to D'Antoni (per the OC Register's Kevin Ding).
Oh. Don't worry, I'll wait for that to sink in for you.
As for the merits of D'Antoni's claims, they're not backed up by any statistical data we have. In games where Clark has played 20 or more minutes, the Lakers are 2-6. That obviously doesn't fall at the feet of Clark, who has played well, but the Lakers have been over nine points better with him off the floor this season than on.
How does this affect Howard's future?
Well, D'Antoni isn't leaving anytime soon. The Lakers signed him to a four-year contract when he took the job, and they're still paying Mike Brown through next season. Not even a man with pockets as deep as Jerry Buss is going to pay three coaches, two of whom are getting checks just to stay away from the team.
Howard needs to ask himself whether he's willing to hitch his wagon to D'Antoni for the remainder of his prime. All of his teammates, even Bryant, are reaching the end of their prime or are already past it.
If his goal, as he's stated on numerous occasions (via NBA.com), is to win championships, Howard needs to decide whether D'Antoni is the type of leader who can help him hoist a banner.
To say the jury is still out would be putting it nicely.
"The Bank of Cuban Is Open"
Now that we've gone through the main factors pushing Howard out of Los Angeles, let's assess a few teams that could offer him a greener pasture—starting with the Dallas Mavericks.
Mark Cuban is a desperate man. He bought the Mavericks from Ross Perot, Jr. in January 2000, and the franchise has missed the playoffs just once during his tenure as owner—that 1999-2000 season in which he purchased the team.
The 12 seasons since have been nothing short of sensational. Dallas has made the playoffs every year, with a revolving cast of parts, with Cuban and Dirk Nowitzki being just about the only two constants.
Unfortunately, Cuban's 13th full season of ownership has been unarguably his worst yet. The Mavericks lost out on hometown boy Deron Williams in free agency and are 18-24 with little chance of postseason glory.
Always prone for a vent-session, Cuban hasn't taken kindly to being a cellar-dweller. In fact, the Mavericks owner seems very willing to open up his checkbook to bring his team back to relevancy.
"We're letting everybody know that the "Bank of Cuban" is open," Cuban said on Jan. 13 (perESPN's Tim MacMahon).
Howard could be the first person to make a withdrawal, and in turn, provide a franchise salvation. The All-Star center made it clear during the summer that Dallas was his top free-agency option if the Orlando Magic kept him through 2012-13, which gives the team at least some viable hope.
On paper, the Mavericks aren't all that attractive—even less so than Los Angeles. Nowitzki is a superstar in name only at this point and will be 35 in June. With O.J. Mayo, Dallas' second-best player, likely opting out this summer to cash in on his great season, there really won't be much appeal personnel-wise.
The appeal of the Mavericks franchise comes down to its owner. Cuban is arguably the most player-friendly owner in the entire league, treating his players with a respect and loyalty that's rarely seen in the sports world.
He's also a competitor. Come the warm place downstairs or high water, Cuban will find a way to make the Mavericks a championship-caliber team again. If Howard wants to shift a franchise's paradigm, be "The Man" again and play for a great owner, then the Mavericks could get serious consideration.
Atlanta general manager Danny Ferry has built a team filled with players on one-year contracts, ostensibly to make a big splash either this or next summer in free agency.
Those are the things we know for sure. In theory, that makes the Hawks a perfect muse for Howard this summer. The prodigal son returning home to reunite with his best friend and to possibly bring one more superstar along for the ride.
The Hawks have a little over $18 million in cap commitments for next season, but can pare that down even further by declining options on DeShawn Stevenson and Mike Scott. That would give them enough cap space to sign Howard, re-sign Smith and have some extra money to spend on another solid piece.
What isn't clear is whether Howard has any interest in playing with his BFF or a glorious homecoming. Howard hasn't made any indication he'd like to play for the Hawks. Thus far, it's been pure speculation, mostly by hopeful ATLiens.
Additionally, Smith and the Hawks aren't exactly on solid terms at the moment. He was recently suspended for "conduct detrimental to the team," and the team has explored trading the enigmatic forward, according to CBS Sports' Ken Berger.
If Smith stays and Howard wants to play with his friend, this is a straightforward move. One just has to wonder whether there's any interest from Howard whatsoever.
Brooklyn Was Still His First Choice
It's not too often that the Los Angeles Lakers play second fiddle to any franchise. But they did with Howard this summer. He openly admitted that he preferred the Brooklyn Nets to the Lakers in October, and Brooklyn's recent ascent back into the Eastern Conference elite certainly can't be helping matters.
Could this on-again, off-again flirtation between Howard and the Nets finally come to pass this offseason? It's very possible thanks to the emergence of Brook Lopez.
Prior to the 2012-13 season, it was utterly laughable that Lopez could be a centerpiece of a trade for Howard. The Nets practically begged the Orlando Magic to take Lopez off their hands during the summer, and were essentially along for the ride only to drive up the price.
At the season's midpoint, however, it's become readily apparent that Lopez is Brooklyn's best player. In fact, the following is a chart comparing Howard and Lopez on a per-36-minutes level this season:
The shooting splits make Lopez look better on a superficial level, but it's hard to argue that these two are closer than anyone expected. Most would take Howard based on his long-term track record, and rightfully so.
However, if Howard comes to Mitch Kupchak and says "trade me to Brooklyn or I'm hopping the next flight to Dallas," then the 24-year-old Lopez wouldn't be such a bad consolation price in a sign-and-trade deal.
Brooklyn would have to make some creative moves cap-wise to make it happen. Under provisions of the new collective bargaining agreement, teams $4 million above the luxury tax threshold are not permitted to receive players in sign-and-trades.
With right around $85 million in commitments, the Nets would need to pawn Kris Humphries' $12 million expiring number on a team to make the deal happen.
Humphries is having a wretched season, meaning teams aren't going to be plowing over each other to bring him in. Brooklyn would probably have to take back a bad contract, only one that's low enough to keep them within the sign-and-trade allowance.
(The Lakers wouldn't be able to take back Humphries because of their own cap nightmare.)
Of the scenarios presented, this is the one with the most hoops to jump through. Nevertheless, I have a sneaking feeling that Brooklyn will once again throw its hat into the Howard chase this summer.
The only question that remains is whether Howard will want to leave Los Angeles enough to make it happen.